Begin with this: I’m no better than anyone else. Pick whomever you like: the haggard, rotten-toothed crack head; the Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not 1000-pounder who eats four rotisserie chickens for lunch; parents who treat their kids like dog crap. One environmental variable; one chromosomal kink; one impulsive, destructive choice: slip one of these into my row of biographical Dominos, and I’m not a marginally respectful fifty-one-year-old blogger and Lutheran pastor. I’m a vagrant, letch, junkie, inmate, whatever. Because of this truth, what follows is a peek at a sad sore on my spirit. Don’t picture my hands as fists.
Sometimes midday oblivion is joyful. Imagine finishing a swim in warm water. Your blanket and towel are in the shade. When you lie down, the sand cradles your body. The breeze is so perfect it seems like part of your skin. Sliding into sleep, you think for a moment your head is resting against the chest of Merciful Eternity. Yeah.
Other times, midday oblivion is the bird—not a bird, but the bird. It’s weary, though reptilian, repartee with the world. It’s a mumbled f-bomb. It’s a wet Bronx cheer. It’s what you say as you shoot the moon. It’s your way of grunting, “Go pound sand.” Or it’s a sighed, “Enough already. You win. I’m taking a nap.”
Today’s oblivion won’t be the beach kind, and before a glorious siesta, I’m wagging my flaccid bird at meanness, which is epidemic. Unless I go to a monastery, I can’t seem to escape it—probably because my eye is now hypersensitive. Mean is everywhere.
The other day my son Micah asked me to run him to the Exchange, a great used media store with friendly, helpful clerks. As he looked around, an ad for some World Wrestling Federation video played over and over on a flat screen in a corner near the ceiling. I stared up, slack-jawed. So many means to celebrate: sweaty, snarling, barking, slamming, glistening, hollering. And that’s just the gladiators. The crowd is in a constant, lathery rage.
When an aching neck forced me to look down, I noticed that at eye level and below, no square inch of the Exchange goes unexploited. There’s junk for sale everywhere. Check out the gallery of confrontational action figures and other curiosities.
In fairness to the Exchange (did I mention the help is genuinely nice there?), not all items are angry.
The common denominator here? If an item isn’t quirky, it must be baring its teeth. Who would buy somebody under eighteen a psychopathic action figure? Only Chuck Norris isn’t a physiological aberration or demented killer. And what adult would collect such diabolical kitsch? The absurdity and ugliness are draining.
Of course, the face of mean isn’t always ugly. Often it’s stylish and witty. Back when “American Idol” was hot I didn’t watch it. Not only was it excruciating to witness performances by kids whose parents had lied to them about their talent, but I also couldn’t hack Simon Cowell’s delight in explicating their failure. I don’t blame Simon—he’s probably a great guy—but he has certainly contributed to the evolution of a television menu that’s riddled with mean. If you want to watch a cooking program, one of your options provides chefs with bizarre ingredients—pork tenderloin, Oreos, arugula, merlot-infused goat cheese, and honeydew melon—then puts their concoctions before restaurateurs, one of whom cowells them over the head for creating gunk. Throw a cluster of narcissistic brats on an island or into a mansion and you’ve got reality television: look how rotten these characters can be to each other, how many ways they can lie to and betray each other. And now home improvement and remodeling shows are caught in mean’s gravitational pull. What’s-their-names, those handsome twin brothers, are now leading teams of competing remodelers, and the underachievers are going to be thrown onto the scrap heap. I can’t tell you the names of these shows, since I watch for a minute, then catch another wave. (By the way, is “Survivor” on anymore? I honestly don’t know.)
I wonder what lesson all this mean entertainment teaches us—and don’t even get me started on “Grand Theft Auto” and “The Human Centipede,” diversions that are beyond mean. If nothing else, I’d argue that the stimulation I’ve mentioned contributes to the normalization of mean.
After watching a movie in which humans are sewn together in the most unsavory way possible, what’s the big deal about posting an embarrassing picture of a friend on Facebook? When housemates shout bleeps and stab fingers in each other’s faces during primetime, a nasty text message seems benign, arriving as it does without eye contact.
But what’s got me looking napward at the moment is more basic than cinema, games, Facebook, and cell phones. I’m tired out by good, old fashioned, face-to-face mean, mean tendered for no good reason, mean delivered because—ah, what the hell!—mean is normal, even hip. (I’ve no empirical evidence to support any of this preachiness—sorry.) My impression is this: contemporary snarl and snark, far from being frowned upon, is now a compelling fashion statement. Wrestling gladiators and movie action figures, with their teeth bared, are only the new normal reduced to caricature.
In this regrettable landscape, simple unfriendliness doesn’t register on the interpersonal Richter scale. Even those who claim to be religious can treat fellow human beings shabbily without any fallout of conscience. Lately a dear friend has shared news that those around her are repeatedly breaking author Anne Lamott’s Rule #2, which I paraphrase here: “Don’t be a [schmutz].” My friend’s been hurt, worn down by cold shoulders and passive aggression.
Truth be told, it’s actually my friend’s pain that’s tiring me out—a cordial, hard worker being pummeled by schmutzes. There’s no remedy for what’s certainly longstanding bad behavior that I’m stung by now only because I’m thin-skinned. All I can do is follow Voltaire’s advice that I cultivate my own flawed garden. And I can give loving, juicy raspberries to a world that seems extra mean today, then lie down. My hope: in sleep the only teeth I dream will be framed by smiles.