A while back, I was talking with someone about the controversy surrounding the Huy Fong Foods Sriracha plant in California. He said “a bunch of douchebags are complaining about the sriracha plant.” I remembered thinking that this was an uncharitable characterization. He didn’t say “people” or “Californians,” but called them “douchebags.” He was creating this separation from these people and dismissing their concerns as invalid. Yet what if it was his daughter who had constant asthma attacks and his son who was crying daily about burning eyes? The causal link between these symptoms and the sriracha plant may be in dispute, but to write off such complaints as coming from “douchebags” is crude.
Similarly, imagine that your car is idling at a red light. Just as the light turns green, the car in front swerves in and cuts you off. You might say “That asshole cut me off!” Yet what if you were in the car ahead? What if you cut someone off because you were in a rush to get to an appointment, or you were distracted from talking to a friend, or made a genuine mistake? You might say “Well, I should be excused. In my case, it was ok.” Yet so often we fail to extend that same understanding to another person. Instead of considering that the driver was exhausted from a long day’s work, or that the waitress who wasn’t attentive was worried about her sister, or that the coworker who took the last sandwich was simply not thinking, we call them “assholes,” “bitches,” and “douchebags.” Instead of relating to others as people, we create caricatures, one-dimensional cretins incapable of other concerns or motives.
Friends, that is not the way to live. Remember that the other person is an actual person. Don’t be consumed by toxic anger, resentment, or bitterness. Next time someone behaves in a rude or offensive manner, try to understand what they may be thinking and feeling.
I had recently received my yellow belt in Tang Soo Do. I was practicing some new moves in class yesterday with another newly minted yellow belt. We were still learning the moves, and periodically would mess up the drill. After one such slip-up, my classmate said “Sorry, that was stupid.” I said “No, that wasn’t stupid, that was incompetent.” She said “That’s not much better.” I responded “No, that’s much better. You’re not stupid at all, but there’s no shame in saying you’re incompetent. I’m incompetent too! If we were fully competent, we wouldn’t have to practice all of this.”
Many people have taken “you’re incompetent” to be an insult. Oftentimes, implicit in that statement is that “you’re incompetent at something you should be competent at, and your lack of competence is due to a failure on your part.” However, incompetence necessarily must come before mastery. I can confidently say that I am incompetent at legal research and writing because I have never done it before. Stating that I am incompetent is an objective assessment of my ability; it has nothing to do with my worth or future ability.
Incompetence is not a problem. Staying there is a problem.
As I was walking through downtown Chicago, I noticed a Mrs. Fields cookie shop. In the window were several large cookie cakes, with pink, red, and white hearts and endearing messages written in icing. Valentine’s Day is coming up.
I started thinking about some of the derisive comments I have heard regarding Valentine’s Day and how it is grotesquely commercialized into a marketing ploy to sell more useless stuff. While I don’t deny that overeager consumption of cheap trinkets and sugary snacks (since nothing says celebration like carbohydrates) has had a detrimental effect on the holiday, I still think Valentine’s Day is worth celebrating for what it represents. In our jaded, advertising–bloated society, we can so easily dismiss the truth because we don’t like the packaging. Romantic love isn’t everything, and it so often is asked to do what it cannot do in changing people’s lives, but it is a good thing. It is because it is a good thing that it has become drenched in the marketing molasses, yet that does not take away from its importance.
So how will I celebrate Valentine’s Day? I don’t have a romantic partner, but instead of moping and griping about it, I will still celebrate romantic love. I will celebrate the love that I have seen amongst my friends who are married or in a relationship and how they have grown as a consequence. I will celebrate the patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and care I have seen expressed through these relationships. I will celebrate the romantic relationship between my parents, who have demonstrated the steadfastness and hardiness of love. I will continue to seek to be a man of wisdom, integrity, and kindness that I will be ready for my future spouse. Most of all, I will reflect on this mystery, that the most common metaphor used to describe the relationship between Jesus and the church is of marriage. Not of lord and servant, not of supplicant and benefactor, but of marriage, the two becoming one.
But I won’t eat any of those Valentine’s Day candy hearts. Not a fan.
A dream I once had:
I was in an Italian villa with my parents and my brother. We were walking through charming cobblestone streets and old buildings when we came upon a small candy store. As we wandered around in the store, I found a hole in the wall that was just big enough to squeeze into. I crawled through it and emerged inside a vast auditorium. There were thousands of people gathered, dancing, while a band played onstage. Everything was dark, but there were dim blue lights everywhere. After some time, I decided to find my family again. I went out a door and found myself back at the hotel where they were staying. However, I soon realized that I had left a notebook at that auditorium. I turned back and through a different street found the auditorium, which was now empty. I found my notebook under a chair and headed out.
When I went outside, several black sedans pulled up and threatening men in dark suits and sunglasses came out. The Mafia! They started walking menacingly toward me. Just then, my friend Crystal Mok drove up in a motorcycle. I said “Crystal, what are you doing here?!” She said “Get on!” and we started racing away, the mafia chasing after us. The view panned out from my perspective to an overhead camera view. Crystal and I (even though I was watching from overhead, I could still tell it was me) sped away, the sedans in quick pursuit. We weaved through alleyways and side streets, but the mafia were gaining! We reached the marina! Off the ramp! We’re airborne! Landing right onto the cruise ship, the mafia still after us! We weaved through the shops and the food stands. Then I turned into Uma Thurman and Crystal turned into Janet Jackson. Another ramp! Jump! Crystal/Janet disappeared, and I/Uma turned into a mermaid. I crashed into the ocean and frantically started swimming away. One of the mafia men jumped off the boat and came hovering toward me through the air. Then I woke up.
This past winter, I got to spend time with my cousin and her friend. They are exchange students from Korea in San Francisco. We were talking about their experience in the US so far, and the topic turned to language. My cousin said “I think Korean has a much bigger vocabulary than English. In Korean we have so many words to talk about different types of emotions, but in the US, it seems that everyone uses the same words always. They are mad or sad or tired. Oh yes, many people definitely say they feel tired.”
I said “I think that may be more about culture than language. Korea is a more formal and structured society. People take more care with their words. In the US, especially amongst college students, people are much more casual. They develop a habit of using certain words and don’t expand beyond them. There’s many words like tired, each with their own meaning, like fatigued, exhausted, weary, worn out, and sluggish. Yet for some reason, people don’t use them very much, but stick with tired.”
Once, a friend was talking to me about an event he attended. He said “Dude, it was hecka legit.” I said to him “If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to hear you use other words to say what you just said, since you use that phrase so often.” He responded “Um, it was profoundly life transformative,” to which I said “Hey, that’s good! That tells me more about that experience.”
In my own life, I try to embrace more diversity in the words that I employ. An overemphasis on precision in language can become pedantic and even paralyzing (expression of an idea can be halted by an obsessive necessity to have just. that. right. word.) However, I do appreciate the richness that an expanded vocabulary permits and I want to continually make efforts to develop my words along with my thoughts.
When listening to another person share about an experience, a useful question is “What was most surprising about that experience?” This is a helpful question because it guides the other person to remember their expectations, think about their experience, and consider the discrepancies between the two. There is a great deal of reflection centered in this question and it facilitates careful contemplation.
For example, I was asked “What was the most surprising thing about law school for you?” After some thought, I responded that the most surprising thing was how many of the insecurities and self-defeating thoughts that I had thought were past me came back up again. I would be overwhelmed with the work and avoid it, then would question whether I was really smart enough and disciplined enough to deserve to be at this school. Even though my context was different, I was still the same person, working through negative tendencies and behaviors. In retrospect, it should not have been surprising, since simply changing my context does not change me as a person. All the same, this was a useful insight, since now I know to watch for it and not be so surprised again. I was able to recognize this self-defeating thought and counter it with the truths I have learned from the past few years.
The cartoonist Bill Watterson noted in an anthology of Calvin and Hobbes strips that many people assume Calvin is based on his childhood or his own child. Watterson said that in fact he was a rather well-behaved kid and that he has no children. He explained that he enjoys writing Calvin because so often he disagrees with what Calvin does, but it allows him to express another part of himself that usually doesn’t see much light. Calvin allows Watterson to express a part of himself.
For example, imagine this bit of dialogue:
Jessica: “Stop with all your God talk! Stop trying to shove your religion down my throat!”
Mary: “Heh, knowing where your throat’s been? I’d rather not.”
Now, I would never say such a thing in real life, and I think it’s a deplorable comment. Still, I can’t help but savor some of the deliciousness of this comeback. The great thing about fictional characters is that you can explore different personas (diva/charlatan/fool) without the experiencing the repercussions of their behaviors.
My flight to Chicago was canceled, so I ended up flying to Milwaukee to spend the night and then to take the train the next day. This morning, I was eating breakfast at the hotel, when a woman came into the hotel in great distress. Evidently she was a guest checking out of the hotel and her husband had accidentally spilled a bag of snacks outside on the street, including a bottle of wine that was a gift. She started venting over the ineptitude of her husband, calling him “stupid” and “idiot.” When her husband came into the hotel, she continued to snap at him and call him names, reminding him of the other mistakes he made that day. The husband said nothing.
The woman probably had grounds to be upset with her husband, but I couldn’t help but think about how my parents would have handled this situation. For one, they would not have aired their grievances in such a public fashion. Moreover, while my parents have had occasion to be upset with each other, they have never insulted the other’s intelligence. On the contrary, my father frequently commends my mother for her wisdom and understanding, while my mother compliments my father’s insight and knowledge. They probably would have been annoyed by such an accident, but ultimately would not have taken it personally.
In the end, blaming the other person is satisfying in the short term but undermines the connection in the long term. The blame approach wins the argument to lose the relationship.
Today is the birthday for one of my law school mentors, a 3rd year. When I sent him a Facebook message to wish him happy birthday, I realized that he is younger than me. I then checked several of the 2nd and 3rd years who have helped me this past quarter, and I am older than almost all of them. This should not be strange at all (the median age of my school is 24, while I am 26), yet somehow I find it odd. Perhaps it is an effect of the hierarchical nature of Korean thinking that values a person commensurate to their age and defines relationships partly on differentials in chronologic existence.
Yet I take this as a learning experience to remember that just because I happened to be born 2 years before someone else does not mean that I have nothing I can learn from them. As I have said before, I can learn about life from the older Russian woman with a Master’s degree and I can learn from the 18 year old completing his GED and playing in a punk band in his spare time. The mark of maturity is humble teachability.
Once, I was having lunch with a few friends. Half the time they were on their phones. I would talk with the person next to me, but the others would check Facebook or text others.
Imagine what it would be like if I said “Hey guys, I’m not sure how to tell you this, but I might not be alive tomorrow.” Stunned, they might look up from their phones, concern in their eyes. “What? Joel, are you ok?” “Yeah, I feel fine. In fact there’s nothing wrong with me that I can tell. But you never know what might happen. I might get hit by a car today, or be caught in a fire, or some terrible accident. My point is that this might be our last meal together, so could I ask you to put your phone away and be present here with me? I want to share this time with you, but it’s hard to do that when you’re not fully here.”
Of course, I didn’t say this. I just ate my lunch and was thankful for friends.