I used to believe that being mean was respectable. In 5th grade, I went to the Laundromat with my best friend. Her mom went to pick up some clothes and they weren’t ready for her. She yelled, got in the employees’ faces, and came back to the car, proud that she had gotten her way. I remember going home and telling my mom that she should be more like my friend’s mom. “You’d get your way a lot more,” I said.
Now, I see plenty of reality shows where meanness is used as a protector and as a power-enforcer. People often use meanness as a tool to secure their own pride, power, likeability, or comfort. They put their own need to secure these things over another person’s need to be respected. Other times, people don’t use meanness as a tool, but allow it to show because they don’t care about the effects of their disdain on others enough to refrain.
Don was insulted by little Emmett, so Don made fun of Emmett (securing pride). Kara hears Emily gossiping about her, so Kara gets in her face and threatens her (securing pride). A boy bullies another student (securing power). A girl gossips and laughs with her friends (securing likeability). A coworker blames their subordinate to cover their own mistake (securing pride), a popular student tells the dork to “shut up about the Pokémon” because it annoys her (securing comfort), a teacher makes a joke about a former student to the class (securing likeability). Anyone showing disgust at a ‘stupid’ question (lack of concern).
I’m generalizing a bit. Meanness doesn’t have to play by any rules. We will experience the end of a mean episode for seemingly no reason at all, but I believe seeing meanness for the selfishness it is can only help us in resisting retaliation.
The thing of biggest concern to me is we are confusing meanness for strength. We applaud the contestants on the Real Worldwho “show them who’s boss.” It concerns me that I saw my friend’s mom at the Laundromat and wanted to be just like her. I wanted that kind of power.
Regardless of the power that meanness seems to offer us, we cannot be fooled. Meanness is not strong. It is a cheap power, but not strong.
Anyone can be mean; it is not a skill. We know this because plenty of three year olds react in meanness. BUT this is because three year olds have not yet learned self-control, or what it means to consider others before themselves. Being mean is probably the easiest way for our human-nature to react when we feel disrespected, hurt, or annoyed. Being mean is easy, three-year-old weakness that fails to honor ourselves or the people around us.
We can stop the chain reaction of meanness! Have you ever heard the saying, “Hurt people hurt people”? When people are mean to us and we are hurt, we are most tempted to be mean to them and to others. In terms of how we interact with the world, It has helped me to think of our actions as ACTING or REACTING to the world.
In regards to kindness, a Reaction is letting someone’s behavior towards you dictate how you act towards him/her. An Action is choosing how to act towards a person based on your own beliefs, integrity, and desires to serve people and/or God.
So, if a girl named Janet maliciously announced at the work meeting that her coworker Stephanie was an idiot because she filled in some paperwork incorrectly, Stephanie could react or act.
Reaction (letting what is done to her dictate her actions): Stephanie makes a joke about how Janet is late to work everyday and shouldn’t be knit-picking about paperwork. Stephanie then gossips about Janet around the workplace, and rolls her eyes at Janet when Janet looks at her. Stephanie invites everyone to her New Year’s party but tells Janet, “Ohhh, I’m sorry, there’s just not enough room for you,” and then Stephanie even tries to get Janet fired.
Action (acting from her own integrity): Stephanie looks at Janet in the eye and says, “Oh, I’m sorry. Can you show me how you would like that done after the meeting?” Stephanie does not feel shame or does not feel that she needs to prove anything. Stephanie can even respectfully tell Janet that she doesn’t like being referred to as an idiot. Stephanie continues to be kind to Janet, even inviting her to her New Year’s party. Stephanie can offer Janet kindness and respect, but also have boundaries with her because Janet may not be trustworthy right now. (And boundaries are okay!).
Reacting (in this meaning) is being dictated, or enslaved, by the actions of others. You do…because it was done to you. Acting is doing what you always desire to do despite people’s actions towards you.
My first thought when reading the “acting” description is “what a doormat.” When we react in meanness, we often believe we are justified and being fair. In that way, ‘Acting’ may sound like passivity, but NO! It is the opposite. It is fighting to maintain your own actions regardless of what people do to you. It is fighting to maintain integrity and your own personality even if others don’t respond politely. It is refusing to let others choose how YOU hold yourself. It is Actively (not passively) choosing to love people even when their actions don’t deserve it.
Jesus addressed this idea when he gave the Sermon on the Mount.
“If you love only those who love you, what reward is there in that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?”
Jesus goes on to tell us to love our enemies. I don’t see “love” here directing our feelings as much as our actions. We are to be kind even when it feels counterintuitive. I believe acting in kindness, maintaining integrity, being ourselves despite opposition, and even giving favors to those who wrong us may be the hardest acts we ever do… but be encouraged, it is strength and self-control! And God loves it…we are walking in His footsteps.
For ourselves, we can let go of the need to prove ourselves. We can rest in God to provide all of the things we need. He gives us comfort in Him, He calls us loveable, and He tells us we are clothed in dignity. Because of that, we can be less concerned with demanding (through meanness) to be respected…and we can be concerned with loving others. Just like Christ, we can expect for there to be times that people are mean to us… but we can be actively in control of how we respond. Our meanness is always our choice. Blaming others for our choices is not only immature, but also dangerous. We need to look at our reasons for acting out instead of blaming what spurred it on, and then we can ACT out of our own integrity instead of REACT in a mean way.