There is an episode of Seinfeld where George decides that his instincts are always wrong, so he will from now on only do the opposite (you can click on the photo to see it). He ends up impressing and dating a woman who would normally be totally out of his league, and he does it just by being honest about his unemployment and the fact that he lives with his parents. I love this episode – it makes me laugh out loud every time I see it. But there is a truth in “The George Costanza Method.” When George becomes brutally honest and unashamed about his imperfections, all kinds of doors start to open for him. I try to remember this when I find myself angry or frustrated with people. When my impulse is to act in anger, I will flash to that episode in my head, remember my own shortfalls, and consider “doing the opposite.”
There are so many times when people hurt us, or we witness people being hurt in a way that we don’t understand. Often our impulse is to lash out with anger or retribution. We like to call it “justice.” We find a million ways to convince ourselves that we would NEVER be capable of committing some of humanity’s darkest acts. But if we are brutally and nakedly honest with ourselves, the way George is about his living situation, we have all caused pain for someone at one time or another. We have all made bad choices that have had painful consequences for others or for ourselves. I believe that we all walk a very fine line in life, and if enough circumstances are in place, we are all capable of ugly. It’s what makes us human. I challenge anyone out there to tell me that they he has never hurt a person they loved; that she has never had to say that she was sorry for causing some kind of pain. In that sense, we are not any different from the people who have hurt us.
Each of us has a story that brings us to the various crossroads of life. That unique path leading to our crossroads plays a large part in the choices we make. Some people’s choices seem worse than others, but it is important to remember that none of those choices happens in a vacuum. And none of those choices dictates what the next choice has to be – there is always a way to change paths at the next junction.
A group of my girlfriends and I recently had a philosophical discussion about spirituality, heaven and hell, forgiveness, etc. The examples that came up ranged from serial killers to adulterous spouses to bratty kids to George Costanza – the gamut of humanity’s darker side, if you will – not in any particular order or ranking. I think the ultimate challenge here is to apply the George Costanza Method universally.
Our impulse in the face of pain is to punish and withhold kindness from the source of that pain. But when we follow that impulse, we are continuing a cycle of pain. Pain begets pain. Hurt people hurt people. However, if we employ Mr. Costanza’s method, and instead, we do the opposite; if we dig deep to find compassion and show kindness to someone who may be seemingly undeserving of such things, we end the cycle – not just for that person, but for ourselves.
When a person commits a horrific act, or a spouse cheats on a spouse, or a kid bullies another kid at school, there is a back-story. If you trace the history of that person, you will find somewhere that he or she has been wounded, and is continuing the cycle of pain in the same way that a wounded animal will bite you in an effort to protect itself if you try to get too close to it. Our impulse says, “step away from the animal.” But I think we need to consider cautiously approaching it. Do the opposite. Consider showing compassion and forgiveness to those who actually seem the least deserving.
At this juncture in the conversation, one of my girlfriends pointed out that there are PLENTY of people who have gone through terrible things and have risen above the brutal aspects of life. They do not go on to cause others pain just because they were dealt a crappy hand. True. God bless these folks – they have enough compassion for themselves and others to be able to see that ending the cycle makes more sense than repeating it. But doesn’t that make the case to love the unlovable even stronger? Doesn’t that mean that the darkest of our human brothers and sisters are the ones who are so trapped in that cycle of pain that they can’t find their way out of the dark alone? Isn’t it possible that this is the reason that they keep hurting people? When we repay their hurtful actions with retribution and anger, we are reinforcing a cycle of pain that they are already mired in. If we choose instead to shine even a tiny light of compassion, we leave room for the slightest chance that they will find their way out of the dark some day. And if they still can’t find their way, at least our cycle ended with an act of compassion.
Let me be clear – this does not mean that I want to set the Charles Mansons or Jerry Sanduskys freed from prison. Nor do I think that abuse victims should remain married to their abusers. Or that we should excuse anyone for treating us badly. When a person chooses to violate a contract, whether it is a societal contract, a legal contract, a marriage contract or even the implied contract of friendship and spoken promises, there are consequences. Real consequences. Like jail, or divorce, or the loss of trust, temporarily or permanently. But I can see that a criminal is prosecuted to the highest extent of the law while extending compassion to him as a human being. A woman divorcing her abusive husband can forgive, let go and wish her abuser no ill will – from a distance. If we seek to understand the source of a person’s pain (remembering that he/she is a PERSON), it becomes harder to hold on to anger. Even if the source remains unknown, I can wish for a person to find within himself a way to shed light on it; a tiny light that may just possibly allow him to begin to make amends and find peace; that allows him to free himself from the hell of his own creation, even if that freedom is only possible from within the walls of a prison cell.
I think we need to ask ourselves, “Do we show kindness to others as a means to ‘get to heaven?’ Or does showing kindness to others feel so right – sometimes so good inside – that in the moment of showing it, in the moment of letting go of our anger, we are already experiencing heaven?” If the latter is true, I don’t have to wish that there is a “special place in hell” for anyone. Alternatively, I wish that all people could find their way OUT of hell and start showing a little kindness so that they, too, can get a little taste of heaven. This is not just a compassionate wish – it is wisely selfish.
I have made my own regretful choices in life. Thankfully, none of my stupid choices were felonies thus far, but some of them did shake me up enough to know that we can make something beautiful out of the ugly if we choose compassion, kindness and forgiveness for ourselves and others. It starts with being fearlessly honest about your own imperfection and looking for good in the unlikeliest of places.
Do the opposite. Wise words from an unlikely source.