“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
The above is a line from The Great Gatsby, one of my favourite novels. (Don’t knock it til you read it, the Baz Luhrmann version will probably have F. Scott Fitzgerald, that tortured, amazing genius, squirming in his grave til the Day of Judgment.) Even at the age of twelve, when I first read the book, the above line struck me as particularly insightful, because it cuts to the very heart of what often inhibits human relations: complete, utter carelessness.
In my limited, twenty three year long exposure to the human race, as well as my equally limited knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re really not that bad a bunch. In each of us is the potential for great good, as well as the potential for great evil, but in reality many of us are trapped somewhere in between. We can be very kind when we care to be, but when we don’t care, we can wreak devastation upon those around us. This is compounded by the existence of what philosopher Claudia Card terms ‘the gray zone’: the uncertain place in which the tortured becomes the torturer, the victim the oppressor.
Many of us live in a type of permanent gray zone, though not of the precise nature that Card theorised. We get hurt, we hurt someone else. We get rejected, we reject someone. Someone friendzones us, we friendzone someone else, and so we all snowball into a big pile of hurt feelings and broken (emotional) bones from which none of us escape unscathed. To appropriate some of my legal reasoning, many of us are continually committing manslaughter. There’s not enough evidence to prove murder beyond reasonable doubt; the wilful intent to destroy just isn’t there in most cases. But there is a great deal of recklessness in the way we operate, a lack of consideration of the reasonably foreseeable consequences of our actions.
This isn’t to excuse any of it, of course, and this is where I will drop the academic lingo: being careless makes us jerks. Saying things we don’t mean makes us jerks. It doesn’t matter if we meant them ‘in the moment’ (what a silly turn of phrase), because if we didn’t mean them in the next they aren’t worth the spit we used to produce them. Giving someone false hope makes us a jerk, and giving someone mixed signals makes us even bigger jerks. Not recognising that an offer of affection from another human being is a great honour makes us jerks, and backing out at the very first sign of trouble makes us jerks.
Many of us have been jerks for a day, maybe even for a week or a month. We’ve been careless because of an existential crisis we’ve been going through, we get reckless and drive too fast to escape the metaphorical car we feel is tailgating us. These are not excuses.Thankfully, many of us wake up to our senses and remember to default to our more natural state of empathy and kindness. We feel guilty, we apologise and we swear never to do it again. We may slip up and do it once or twice, but by and large we learn our lesson: that other people have an inner world as acute and deep as our own, an inner world which deserves our respect and compassion regardless of the absence or presence of romantic feelings towards them.
But then there are those who are serial offenders. These people appear to be perennially, insistently careless. Some of them may just be hardwired with a low sense of empathy and sensitivity; theorists have posited that evil can be described as much as an ’empty centre’ as a positive force. Others may actually relish the power they derive from gaining the trust of others, symptomatic of far deeper issues. Others may be just so self-absorbed that the feelings of others barely register on their radar. Or maybe, in a quote from my dad’s favourite Simpsons episode, this can be said: “Animals are a lot like people, Mrs. Simpson: some of them act badly because they’ve had a hard life or have been mistreated. But, like people, some of them are just jerks.”
When we encounter pathological jerks, there is very little to do except to run for cover when they reveal themselves, which they inevitably will. It’s not easy. These people are often charming, sociable and entirely free of body odour. They may even be well-versed in Ghazzali’s works! But peel back the surface slightly, and what lies beneath? A core lack of reactivity. This isn’t the sign of a well-trained nafs or a heart fortified by love of Allah swt; it’s simply that they don’t care. Run hard, run fast, and don’t look back except to warn others of when they’re coming. (There’s a reason why backbiting is permissible under some circumstances-for the protection of those who may be harmed.)
Unless we’re some kind of pathological jerk of the above varieties, there’s always hope. It comes in the little things, in how we watch our words and clarify, then clarify again, if something comes out wrong. It’s in our liberal use of smiley faces in online communication and equally liberal use of real ones in face-to-face communication. It’s in how we withdraw from a conversation with someone we have no feelings for, despite the fact that we’re bored and would really like to just talk to someone, anyone. It’s in how we soften a careless word with ten gentle, careful ones. It’s in how we say, you’re really lovely and I’m really flattered but I’m just looking for something different, which is entirely to do with me at this point in my life and nothing to do with you, and it’s in how we forgive people for being jerks for a second or a week because we’ve been there too.
Have you encountered a jerk? Have you been a jerk to someone?