This week, I was sitting in Starbucks when I overheard a thirty-something gentleman talking loudly on his phone. He was describing another gentleman who apparently made a “menacing gesture” at him, though from what I could gather from hearing his end of the call, there was no weapon or any real threat of danger – and that’s when I realized he was on the phone with 911.
Yes, it looked like the man called 911 because another patron looked at him the wrong way, yet the caller was never physically assaulted. The police came, and the interrogation with the caller made me feel second-hand embarrassment for him (by then, the “menacing patron” was long gone). The cops left, aggravated, while the man called out, “Wait! Aren’t you going to dust his table for fingerprints?” The whole exchange reminded me of a joke my husband likes to make whenever a controversial story dominates social media: “Good morning, America! What are we offended by today?”
This is the moral I took from the event: a deranged sense of entitlement can be dangerous for real victims in need of police intervention. One can only imagine how that man copes with other offenses, if his feelings are that fragile. I hope he never visits New York.
Entitlement isn’t always that extreme, though. After working several years in the food industry, I’ve often wondered what it is that makes certain people think they are important enough that their needs come before everyone else’s; that they are appalled to not be treated like royalty and take deep offense to any sign that they are not as well-liked as they believe. It troubles me to think how such people handle real hardship, and if they perceive a slight loss of privilege as the equivalent of tyranny.
I think Jesus taught me much about a lifestyle that puts others first: not in an unhealthy, codependent way that ignores my own needs, but in such a way that reminds me I am not the center of anyone’s universe. I never interpreted “turn the other cheek” as letting others walk all over me. To me, “turn the other cheek” is not letting a rude driver ruin my day, an insult from an acquaintance affect my self-esteem, or a mean blog comment from a stranger make me vindictive. It teaches me to take criticism from sources that matter, and forget the rest. Jesus has and continues to teach me how to be content with less because I still have far more than most people in the world. There is no amount of money or possessions I feel I am owed somehow.
I am also reminded of Anne Frank’s quote in her diary about her belief in the goodness of all human beings; even those consumed with murderous hate. Many rabbis teach a similar train of thought. When I worked at Panera, there was a customer who was extremely picky about how she wanted her bagels sliced. Two attempts later, she snapped and complained about the quality of service we were giving her. Almost immediately, she apologized for acting so out of line. She confessed that her husband had just died, and she was picking up breakfast for the relatives who were soon to arrive at her house. Then she burst into tears. In five seconds, the woman went from being the most difficult part of my day to someone I wanted to reach across the counter and hug. I’ve thought of that woman every time I encounter a rude person, not knowing what struggle they might be going through. I hope other people are just as gracious towards me in my less-than-pleasant moments.
In Judaism, sin is not a condition, but an action. I struggle with the paradox that I am a sinner, even in my sleep, yet recognizing sin in my own life makes me more accepting of the sins of others (well…sometimes). It’s funny how one doctrine can teach me empathy as well as to occasionally question my own worth, which I think is just as damaging as an inflated ego. It surprises some people that I don’t believe I am a “good person,” nor do I believe any truly “good” people exist (my apologies to Anne Frank). That’s not to say that I believe all people, myself included, are intrinsically evil; it means that I am too familiar with my own ulterior judgments and prejudices to pretend they don’t exist in others.
I wonder if that Starbucks customer who called 911 was so self-inflated that even a negative glance is a criminal offense, or maybe he has nonexistent self-esteem that makes even a negative look feel like a legitimate attack.
Or, maybe I analyze things too much.