Last weekend’s blog post “A Dollar’s Worth of Morals” may turn out to be the most unpopular thing I’ve ever written on this site. Several typically friendly Litkicks commenters posted in no uncertain terms that they hated the piece … including my own beloved wife.
Ironically, I didn’t expect this reaction at all when I wrote the piece. I was only trying to tell an amusing story that had, I thought, a positive and good-natured moral.
Clearly, my writing skills failed me. As they say, “If three people tell you you’re drunk, sit down.” I now see what went wrong with this piece, and I understand why it left so many of my faithful readers cold. I’d like to explain where I went wrong, and maybe salvage some part of my original message, which completely got lost in this disaster.
The story I told is a simple one: as I was leaving work one day, a co-worker named John T. raced down the building lobby after me, causing a lot of public commotion, so he could give me back the dollar he’d borrowed earlier that day. He evidently lived in moral horror of ever forgetting a debt, and the point of my telling this story was that I found his priorities ridiculous, especially since he had recently disappointed me by failing to speak up to our boss about a workplace problem we were both concerned about.
I was trying to make a subtle and esoteric point, in a non-judgemental way, that we often put too much emphasis on petty issues involving small amounts of money or insignificant possessions, failing to emphasize instead the things that really matter in our lives. I’m very interested in the psychology of wealth and possessiveness, and I meant this piece to reflect upon the same questions I’d brought up in earlier Philosophy Weekend posts like this one or this one.
But a strange thing happened between my conception of the story and my telling of it. I thought I was writing in an amused and jokey voice, but somehow a vein of hidden anger became exposed, and the tone of my story became shrill. I began accusing John T. of following a shallow and legalistic code of ethics, and went off on a strange half-paragraph rant about how he had betrayed our friendship. This harsh stuff did not match the intended warm tone of my blog post at all, and I ended up making readers feel sorry for poor John T., who I was beating up mercilessly for the very minor crime of paying me back a dollar.
What went wrong here, and where did my anger come from? The story I told is all true, but if John T. ever reads it (and I pray that he won’t), he will be extremely surprised, since he and I worked together for three pleasant years without any drama ever passing between us. We didn’t even know each other very well, but I liked John as well as I knew him — he was a sharp guy, great sense of humor, a Mets fan. I’m sure he wouldn’t expect me to be writing about him on a blog at all, and the intensity of this piece doesn’t match anything that ever transpired between us in real life.
And yet, apparently something had transpired in my mind. Somehow, between the time I began writing this blog post and the time I finished it, I had been overcome by deep feelings of anger towards a co-worker that I barely knew.
Where did this anger come from? Well, as I relate above, John did disappoint me after we’d both discussed a serious problem within the company — a bitter rivalry between our software development group and the server operations group — that had escalated to the point where it was greatly harming our productivity. I urged John to stand with me when I spoke to our boss about it. In the end, I spoke to our boss about it alone and John stayed mum. He wasn’t the type to stick his neck out.
So I guess I was angry at him for making such a big deal about returning a dollar to me, but not coming through for me when it would have really counted. Even though I didn’t realize how angry I was until I read the piece I’d wrote.
Sometimes you have to read your own writing to find out what you feel. Anyway, my misdirected bitterness ruined what should have been a good fable and a popular blog post, so the joke is on me. I still think it’s pretty dumb to care about paying back a dollar for a soda, but I guess I’m in the minority here.
It’s funny how these things happen. Watching the L. A. Lakers/Oklahoma City Thunder NBA playoffs this week, I observed a telling moment involving Metta World Peace, the great basketball player who changed his name from Ron Artest last year. Now, it always seemed to me that the reason Metta World Peace changed his name is that he (Ron Artest) had a reputation as a brawler and a troublemaker, and he wanted to show that he had changed his ways. But then, earlier this season, Metta World Peace smacked James Harden in the neck with his elbow. And, during the playoffs, he tried hard not to commit any fouls but ended up getting called on a flagrant foul that he probably didn’t even commit. Watching this, I thought about all the trouble he went through to change his name to Metta World Peace, and how he still had anger issues even with the new name.
I wonder what Ron Artest/Metta World Peace is so angry about? I have no idea. I sometimes wonder what I’m so angry about too, and I also have no idea.