The S-Word

I like Max. I've always liked him. He's got a wicked sense of humour, for starters, and an odd sweet streak. He's a very capable musician--he's a classical guitarist, quite a good one--and a terrific amateur painter. He does amazing things with watercolours, half abstract, half finely realistic. And he's very, very bright. He and I were good friends, some years ago; we're now back to being on okay terms, but that's where it has to stay.

This is because Max has one very bad habit. Florence reminded me of it the other day over tea. Recently, he pulled the same stunt on her that he did on me, the thing that put an end to our friendship years ago. Florence and Max had a dispute over something, and in the course of the dispute, Max let fly with some pretty brutal comments to Florence--big, hefty, nasty put-down stuff, seriously unpleasant. Then he just walked away from her as though nothing had happened. The next time Florence saw him, it was as though Max hadn't uttered a word, much less a whole lot of those kinds of words. Florence was left steaming. But so far as Max was concerned, the matter was closed.

Florence has been trying to get over the whole unpleasant incident on her own, but she's still pretty badly roiled up. This is not the sort of treatment that a person gets over in a week or so. So when Max greeted her after church as though nothing had happened, she snapped, "Leave me alone, for God's sake!" and whipped away, fuming. Max shrugged, turned away, and went off to talk to Howard. "What I can't get over," Florence said afterwards through gritted teeth, "is how he doesn't seem to give a damn how much he's hurt anyone."

"Goddammit," Florence went on, "It wouldn't kill Max to say 'sorry' just once. I mean, you'd think it'd break his mouth? Just the one word: sorry." Florence herself is very fond of the word sorry, and not in the puppy-dog sense either. (Puppy-dog "sorry" is the sort of dutiful pseudo-apology a person makes merely to get off the hook when the person really isn't sorry at all, or genuinely doesn't understand that there really was a problem. The puppy-dog pseudo-apology is incredibly enraging.) Florence has a peppery temper and a sometimes intemperate tongue, but when she screws up, she goes as soon as she possibly can to the person she's in trouble with and does her level best to set everything to rights. She figures that's part of being a Christian and a grown-up. I agree. The willingness to say "sorry" is one of the things that I value most highly in others--something I learned from my own long-ago run-in with Max. And if I value it in others, I should cultivate it in myself, don't you think?

But Max's attitude, when he's blasted someone out of the water, is more along the lines of "I said what I said, and if you think it's any big deal, that's your problem, not mine. Now, get over it." Try to tackle him and he just turns nasty again. His past is full of unmended fences and littered with ruptured friendships, because Max does not "do" the s-word.

"Sorry" never killed anyone, but you wouldn't know that, watching some people do virtually anything to avoid having to say it. Instead of saying, "I really truly screwed up; I'm so sorry," we get either Max-type avoidance, or puffy self-righteousness, or outright stonewalling, or masses of excuses, or puppy-dog pseudo-apologies. A Canadian federal government minister just made a major public boo-boo and got caught, and you should have watched her trying to weasel out of acknowledging that she blew it. She practically earned a Best Performance award.

Why is this? Why can't Max acknowledge to himself or anyone else, "Sometimes I get carried away and say something really nasty to other people. My tongue can do harm, and when it does that, I really owe it to the other person to try to set things to right"? I don't know. Sometimes the Maxes of this world are so heavily invested in being Nice Guys that they really can't accept their own faults and failings. Or sometimes the Maxes have acquired all sorts of interesting ways of displacing their faults and failings onto other people, so they don't have to take responsibility for them.

But in this particular Max's case, I'd say it's most likely something more straightforward: good old-fashioned Pride, that granddaddy of the Seven Deadlies. Pride, in the sinful sense, is arrogance or narcissism or the refusal to think less of oneself or just ordinary self-centeredness. Max's need not to have to feel bad about himself matters far more to Max than the well-being of his victims. And that is a profoundly unloving--indeed anti-loving --way of behaving. It and the Great Commandment aren't even in the same galaxy.

What Max does, by operating this way, is to expect his victims to do all the work of forgiveness with no help from him. This is akin to trashing someone's house and then expecting that person to do all the cleaning up, because cleaning up is such a bore, and besides, it's not our house that's a mess, isn't it? We create havoc and walk away from it and expect the debris to vanish somehow, as though nothing had ever happened.

But look at what that means. Not only have we offended by making the mess, we've compounded the offence by saddling our victim both with the clean-up AND with our maddening refusal to acknowledge any responsibility. It's no wonder that periodically, one or another of Max's victims whips around, hauls off, and pastes him one (metaphorically speaking) right between the eyes. And then Max gets pissed off because they're supposed to have forgiven him--without, of course, his having experienced the discomfort of knowing that he'd done something that really did need forgiving.

I don't know if Max will ever recognize what the pattern is; as I said, he's usually quite bright, but Pride makes even the brightest people really stupid at times. Pride is, above all else, as dumb as a sack of hammers. I could nail this description to his forehead ("HellOOOO, Max!") and he might not recognize himself in it. Or maybe he'd recognize himself and shrug and walk away, as though it doesn't much matter. It wouldn't surprise me. Max is like that.

I don't know which matters more to Max, protecting his ego or growing his soul; I don't even know if he would understand what I mean by that phrase. While he's nominally a Christian, I don't know if he cares enough about the Way of the Christ to sense the need to change. That's really got to be between him and God; it's none of my business.

But I hope with all my heart that he's got a small squirrelly feel of discomfort about his run-in with Florence, and that that feeling of discomfort digs in and makes him unsettled with himself, like one of those small tickling coughs that just won't go away. We need those squirrelly feelings, that low-grade sense of Something's Not Quite Right Here, to get us up off our self-regarding keisters and off on the Journey. That's what I pray for for Max.

As I said, I quite like Max. Liking is one thing. Respect--that's quite another.

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Fri, 30 Mar 2001
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