Newsletter 114: Remembering That Assholes Are People Too (Eventually)
I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from July 2018, about a letter I received from an old foe. We’re all just people, as hard as that it is to keep in mind. (It really is hard sometimes.)
Earlier this week, I heard from an old adversary. Well, “adversary” is probably too harsh, but it is someone with whom I had a public semi-dustup quite a few years ago. This was a far more common occurrence a decade ago than it is now, by design. My job description, both at Deadspin and probably for a few years after that, was to be a bit of a shit-stirrer, and I was good at it, firm as I was in my convictions as the justified party, as everyone in a feud always thinks they are. As I’ve gotten older, and particularly since I’ve had children, frankly, I find these sort of public feuds undignified and mostly performative: Most people seem to be picking fights just so someone will look at them. Life is too short, you know? I wake up on a Saturday morning and before I’ve even got downstairs to make the boys waffles, people are still screaming at each other. I miss when people did that in private.
That said, these feuds did happen back in the day, and while I tried never to start them, once you were in one, you feel sort of obliged to punch back or, at the very least, hold up the supposed offending party to public ridicule, relying on the masses to do the punching you’d rather not bother with. So anyway, this week, I received a private message from someone with whom I’d had one of these feuds, back during the Deadspin days, a person I hadn’t thought about since then and, I’d presumed, a person who hadn’t thought about me since then either. I’d rather not get into the details of our feud, because it wasn’t that heated and because this person reached out to me privately, but I’ll say that, unlike some of the feuds of the time, this wasn’t one where a lot of people took one side or another. This person did something embarrassing, I pointed it out, and this person doubled down, embarrassing themselves further. It is probably not a moment that served them well, to the point that I certainly took my foot off the gas in promoting or elongated the story at the time. Even if people did their own hole, there’s no need to shovel all the dirt on top of them yourself.
Anyway, I had mostly forgotten about this feud until I heard from this person this week. The note was unsolicited, out of nowhere and incredibly kind. This person said, essentially, that our feud had represented an old version of this person, that this was not who this person was anymore and, most important, that they had been sober for 10 years and that they “never want to go back to that dark time of [their] life.” This person said they were now focusing on staying clean and helping others stay clean, and they they wished me well and hoped my life was a positive one. There was no malice in the message, no score-settling, no nothing at all: Just a nice note from someone who was in a bad place a decade ago and is in a better one now.
I was honored to receive this note and pleased to see that this person was doing better tooday, and I told this person so and how I’ve had enough friends and family struggle with the same issues they have that there is no reason to apologize or explain further. We promised to stay in touch, and even though we probably won’t, we left on amicable, almost uplifting terms. People have a public battle, years pass, we grow and evolve and figure ourselves out, we make up and move on with our lives without that negativity hanging over our heads. It’s probably how all this should work.
But it got me thinking about how we disagree with each other now, which, in case you haven’t noticed, is just about all we do anymore. When someone says something online that we find abhorrent, or at least distasteful enough for us to temporarily raise our dander, we tend to attach the worst possible motive to them and, more so, take this particular odious statement they’ve just made as the totality of their existence, All About Them That You Need To Know. That particular statement is a death sentence: You’re dead to them.
But life keeps going, and the person you think is an asshole now may be going through something that you don’t know about. That asshole might be struggling with a battle that you don’t understand, may be lashing out at you because of their own issue, may be doing something that, eventually, they’re going to regret. We’re all assholes at certain times in our lives. Maybe this is just one of these times. Maybe this isn’t Who They Are.
(It is also possible that you are being the asshole. Worth occasionally keeping in mind.)
It can be frustrating to be in a disagreement with someone you believe is being irrational, or unfair, or even noonsensical. But you are catching them at just one point in their lives, and this argument you’re having with them is not the sum totality of their existence. We demonize whoever is on the opposite side of us, whether it’s politics, geography, sports fandom, whatever. But they are just another human being who, when they close their eyes at night, are struggling with the same shit the rest of us are, no matter how much they may pretending they’re so certain of everything now, no matter how much they be posing in public. When you look back at the person you were 10 years ago, you find hundreds of things you regret, things you wish you had done differently, things you’re smarter about now. Why is it a stretch to think you — and everybody around you — are going to be doing the same thing 10 years from now? Why not cut everybody a little more slack? We’re all just trying to figure it out. We’re all constantly screwing it up. We know this intellectually. But we very rarely display it in practice. We’re too busy fighting, or at least showing everyone we want to fight. We accept flaws in ourselves … but we never accept flaws in strangers. We never give anybody time, including ourselves, for the benefit of the doubt. There are points to be scored now. Kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out.
In 10 years, I will surely look back at this and realize how wrong I was and attributed it to whatever demons I remember myself to be struggling with at the time. I won’t necessarily be wrong.