Sunday, April 10, 2011

Two Kinds of People

In that aborted novel of my late 20s (thinly-veiled fiction related to my life … which made me feel a bit sleazy), the older brother of the main character had a habit, as older brothers often do, of wrestling the kid to the ground in the living room and farting on his head. Much like used to happen to me! But when he did, unlike reality, the older brother always had a snappy one-liner before emitting his gas blast: “There are two kinds of people in the world – me and everybody else.” Pffffttttt.

In reality, that was my line. A great way to acknowledge one’s individuality while employing that “two kinds of people” cliché people use so often. Generally to designate whatever problem they’re having at the moment, with the “two kinds of people” coming down solely to people who relate to their problem, or those who cause it or don’t give a damn. Even within the limited context of the analogy, they’re usually wrong, leaving spaces for dozens of other kinds of people in that given scenario.

But lately, I’ve been thinking: there really are only two kind of people in the world. It’s those who can acknowledge the existence of other people and those who can’t. I’m not even getting into some hokey concept of “those who can love and respect other people.” It has nothing to do with love or respect. I’m talking the simple ability to recognize the existence of other people. You don’t have to love them. You don’t have to respect them (although it helps). You just have to acknowledge that there are other people in the world, many people, and you’re just one of them, trying to get by and make sense of it all.

As opposed to people who don’t give a shit about anyone else. I’m talking sociopaths, and not in that Manson/Dahmer sort of extreme. I work with sociopaths. I live around them. Run into them on sidewalks and subway trains all the time. They’re pretty much everywhere you go, New York or not. That previous post where I noted some creep parking a stolen shopping chart filled with discarded clothes on the landlord’s sidewalk and walking away? That’s probably a sociopath: someone who takes zero responsibility for his actions and doesn’t care at all what sort of effect his lack of respect for himself and others will cause. A sociopath doesn’t have to be a mass murderer; he may never even commit a felony crime. This website offers a great thumbnail description of sociopathic tendencies.

Do you know how many sociopaths I’ve worked with in New York? More than I care to admit. I’m not saying that in a “ha ha funny” way. If you read the main criteria for sociopathic behavior on that website, these are all qualities that are well suited to office work, a place where glibness and superficiality routinely are valued as common currency. If you want to know why corporations and institutions are so needlessly heartless and cruel at times … they’re often run by sociopaths who aren’t worried about the morality of their actions or repercussions. Sometimes it comes back to bite them on the ass (think Enron), but most times not (think Wall Street). I’d also put forth that a vast majority of politicians are sociopaths, regardless of the goodwill façade they present to the public. But I don’t really want to think too long about this, because it’s too disturbing.

I like what that above-noted passage on sociopaths points out: “ultimate goal is the creation of a willing victim.” I must be like Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire hunter, when it comes to dealing with sociopaths. I know what they are. They know I know what they are. Obviously, they don’t care: they’re sociopaths. I try to leave them to their own devices as much as possible, and when I can’t, just discourage and avoid situations where they can indulge themselves.

But sometimes women in an office around a sociopaths? It’s high drama. They make the mistake of investing their emotions with people like this. They get “involved,” somehow. They must “save him.” They must find reason in this person’s inexplicably bad behavior, mixed in with the charm and moments of clarity. Remember the vampire hunter. There is no cure for vampires, only wooden stakes. There is no slow turning of thought and emotion for the person to “see the light” and start behaving like a normal, caring individual. It just doesn’t happen. I’ll never understand how people get pulled into this other clearly troubled person’s self absorption. Your average sociopath is an emotional vampire, sucking the life and energy from everyone around him. These people don’t present mysteries and enigmas to me. Shit, they’re like wallpaper in New York!

Obviously, not every driven, Type A person is a sociopath. But I think we all deal with sociopaths far more often than we’d care to acknowledge. It sometimes feels like the American way, this way we have of gauging success by financial worth, is geared towards creating sociopaths, or at the very least deeply selfish, uncaring people. I’m hardly blowing the lid off a deep dark secret here, but it pains me to acknowledge that what we consider normal is far from it. We’ve all had that feeling of being at work, or just walking the streets, and being presented with a situation or person that is just so radically wrong, we’re left breathless, thinking, “Doesn’t this person know how wrong this is?” And the answer is, no, he doesn’t. In his eyes, he’s right and everyone else is wrong. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking some creep sending text mails on a smart phone on a crowded subway staircase during rush hour, or a division head laying off everyone who does real work in a department and promoting all the wrong workers.

Happens all the time. If we’re feeling sensitive, we stop to ponder how crazy the world has grown, and it only seems to be getting worse. But it’s always been this way. Hell, may have been worse in the past when you consider all the wars, bad politics and power coups throughout history. I usually cringe when people advance that line of thought, because they personally witness some type of bad behavior, that the world in general must be “going bad” in some sense. Compare a negative experience on the street or at work with, I don’t know, say that of someone in Japan right now who survived an earthquake only to watch his house get swept out to sea by a tsunami, can’t find his wife and may be receiving daily doses of radiation that will shave years off the end of his life.

There are bad days and bad people we deal with, but then again, there are some truly horrific situations that people go through daily, sometimes to the point of death. I try to remember that when I’m carrying on about garden-variety sociopaths and bad manners. It is a sort of petty whining on my part, but then again, what I’m noting has some truth to it, too. It’s surely better to focus on the good. If you are one of those people who can acknowledge the existence of other people, keep that thought in mind, walk it as you talk it, don’t let yourself slip into not carrying around that sense of recognition.

And I don’t mean to paint this purely in terms of good/evil. If anything, I recognize sociopaths really have little control over how they act and do not intend to be “bad people” in some sense. Thus, I’ll feel a mild sense of pity for a person with this issue, much more than contempt. I’ve noticed that sort of strange unhappiness in the upper reaches of the corporate world. Granted, a lot of that is massive pressure, mind-bending levels of stress I tend to avoid on purpose. But I gather some of it is just that general unhappiness with life, and no amount of money will change that. You spend all your time in power plays, aggressive behavior towards real and imagined enemies, forever functioning with your back to the wall, distrustful of everyone you meet, it surely takes a deep psychic toll. Sometimes I’m amazed when I meet seemingly happy, well-adjusted executives, because everything else about their lives (despite the money) seems like constant, massive trouble. I guess we all decide how much shit we’re willing to take, how much money we’re willing to make, forgive me for sounding like a Billy Joel song.

What I’ll never understand is these men thinking their ways of life are the ultimate expression of manhood. True, there are men out there using their backs for a living, or engaged in some manly sport, who exude manhood like a musk that everyone notices. How much money do they make?

That’s where these guys gauge their manhood. But you look at what goes on sometimes … and it’s like being cast back to the schoolyard. Remember how you used to fight as a kid with your siblings or neighborhood friends? Those knock-down/drag-out fiascos that would find both of you wailing on each other, mentally or physically, in ways that were meant to leave permanent scars? Those deep blasts of psychic rage you weren’t mature enough to contain or see past because you were a kid and didn’t know any better? Each of you looking for ways to embarrass and dominate your opponent by exposing every possible weakness and secret place?

Take all those ugly, bratty blasts of irrational selfishness and anger, put them in a guy wearing a suit and tie, and this is not all that unusual in an office. It’s virtually no different from those brawls between eight year olds … the same levels of understanding, compassion and empathy. It’s not manhood – it’s the worst of childhood. With monetary value attached.

Where most people go wrong is trying to find reason to justify this. There is no reason. We’re better off focusing on what makes people “good” in some sense and moving towards that. And understanding that most of the good we do, others will not see. Sure, the people in our lives will, those who know us for who we are, but most people won’t have a clue as to what good we’ve done in life and what legacy we’ve left behind. That was a strong feeling I got at Dad’s funeral, that he was essentially a good person who quietly went through life doing whatever it took to keep his family going. And the only people who really knew that were us, the few dozen of us gathered on that frigid, cloudless day in December to lay him to rest.

I bring up Dad because it pleased him no end that I was living in New York, not working in a factory, and in his mind, making more money than he did. (Maybe I have, but I’m still lower end of the totem pole, by far and by choice.) I never quite understood how he never fully grasped that he had a pretty good life – at least the factory he worked in treated and served him pretty well over the course of decades. Does so to this day with a healthy pension for Mom after his passing. But he seemed to think having more money magically made your life better.

Then again, on some level, he knew, as I recall him passing up a few promotions over the years that would have moved him out of the area or put him on the road – two things he had no urge to do after traveling the world on the tail end of World War II and the Korean War. He drew a line, as most of us do. I guess all I’m saying is watch out for people who don’t draw lines. I used to think that sort of wild ambition was a wondrous thing, but now that I’ve lived around it in various guises for the past two decades, I’m not so sure about that.

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