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The Jerk's Guide to Spirituality

Posted January 25, 2011

Topics: Business Communication, Self Improvement

For several months last year, when anyone Googled my name, the first item that came up was, "Alan Lurie: What a Jerk." This was a link to the first blog that I wrote for The Huffington Post titled "What a Jerk!" which was an exploration of the Jungian concept of the "shadow."

And for several months I received many e-mails from friends and colleagues with such ribbing comments as, "This is not exactly news," "I didn't need Google to tell me this," or, "Finally the truth comes out." My initial reaction was to see how this blog could be moved further down on Google (a Rabbi and "spiritual" person very publicly called a jerk! Not good for business, or self-image), but as I looked at the Google entry, a gentle inner voice said, "Yeah, sometimes you are a jerk." There was something very wonderfully liberating -- and funny -- in this realization, and I felt the need to impress, to pretend to be better than I am, or to try to be perfect, lessen. Nobody expects me to be perfect. I'm a jerk, after all!

Webster's Dictionary has two primary definitions for the word "jerk":

An annoyingly or foolish person

An involuntary spasmodic movement due to reflex action

There is an illuminating connection between these two definitions; just as a physical jerk is an automatic, unconscious response to an outside stimulus, we act as jerks when we respond to others out of unthinking, automatic responses that stem from unconscious beliefs and patterns. We act as a jerk, for example, when someone says or does something that provokes anger in us, and we immediately lash out with hurtful words, as though this is the natural and only possible way that we could have responded. And then we refuse to apologize or take any responsibility for the escalated conflict because "it's not my fault; he started it." This is a jerk response.

Acting as a jerk is not a "bad" thing, and does not need condemnation and scorn any more than we ought to condemn a child for throwing a tantrum when she doesn't get to eat a chocolate bar for dinner. Instead, a good parent recognizes that the child needs to learn that there are some things that she wants that are not good for her, and that other people have needs as well. Acting as a jerk, rather, is an unconscious thing. And a human thing. It only becomes a problem when we refuse to acknowledge and look at it, when out of fear of rejection or stubborn pride we are unwilling to accept that we are fallible, that we sometimes fall short of our expectations, that we accidentally do things that hurt others, that we are often asleep and unconscious, and that, at times, we act like a jerk. When we refuse to acknowledge this, we begin to hide behind masks of perfection, anger, depression, separation, cynicism, irresponsibility or superiority, and the more we push our jerkiness away, the more it waits in the wings, gathering mass, demanding to be seen, ready to pounce at the most inappropriate moment, with more force, creating more damage. Then, in reaction to this outburst, we redouble our hatred for this part of ourselves and push it farther away, accelerating the downward spiral, alienating us from our own tender humanity, distancing us from deep connection with others and stopping meaningful growth.

Soon we find that we can no longer tolerate the natural and inevitable imperfections in others because we hate these so much in ourselves. Suddenly we see jerks everywhere. "Why are people so insensitive, selfish, inconsiderate, angry, unenlightened?" we wonder, never consciously realizing that those are exactly the qualities that we cannot tolerate in ourselves, and that we refuse to admit and examine.

Just as an essential step in any twelve-step process is to acknowledge the problem -- "I am an alcoholic" -- an essential step out of this spiral is acknowledgment. Once we can say with humility, honesty and, most importantly, humor, "I am a jerk," it loses its hold on us; we begin to notice when we automatically "jerk" and can then act with more awareness, accepting our inevitable and lovable imperfections, and accepting and loving the imperfections in others. Slowly, the need to be perfect fades, and we soften, open and find humor in the things that used to annoy and offend us. 

Something that is ignored or denied cannot be healed, because it cannot be seen. Without admitting our jerkiness, we can never understand, master and mature it, and it will have unconscious control over us. Freud noted that the goal of psychoanalysis is to make the unconscious conscious -- to move an unexamined identity (i.e."I am an angry person") into an object of exploration (i.e. "I have anger"). Similarly, the goal of spiritual practice is to help us become as conscious as possible to the needs of the soul, and to shift unexamined actions -- "jerks" -- into awareness, so that we can understand and transform them, in order to be more effective, more awake, happier and more present it our lives and to the needs of others. Our souls cry for healing, so we can never will away or pretend that the denial of our humanity does not exist. We must confront it in compassion.

One of my favorite movies is "Groundhog Day," in which Bill Murray plays the character of an insensitive, self-involved, sarcastic weatherman who miraculously relives the same day over and over. He falls in love with a strong, warm, intelligent, beautiful producer played by Andie McDowell, but slowly learns that no amount of his usual manipulation and fake charm will seduce or fool her. He then descends into a deep depression, and unable to face the unending futility of his life, he commits suicide, only to awake to the same day and kill himself again. Now a broken man, empty of ambition or desire, he humbly tells her what is happening.

"The worst part," he says, "is that tomorrow you'll forget all about this and treat me like a jerk again. It's OK, I am a jerk."

"No you're not," she says.

"It doesn't matter," he replies, "I've killed myself so many times I don't even exist any more."

This is the pivotal point in the movie, as he accepts, without defensiveness or self-blame, that he, like all of us, is a fragile, fallible human being, and that attempting to kill this part of himself does not make it go away. Now he begins the gradual but unstoppable transformation out of meaningless and depression into service and joy.

Admitting "I am a jerk" is not a statement of complacency or defeat. It does not stop the desire to grow and change and is not an excuse for bad behavior. The opposite is true. It is not until we have made this admission that we can see how we too often act reflexively and thoughtlessly and can be liberated from the soul-crushing need to reject so much of who we are, and the insane, impossible demand of perfection in ourselves and others. It is also a wonderful way to bring humor into your life. In her powerful, transformative, and funny book, "Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow," Elizabeth Lesser quotes the lyrics of rock comic Wavy Gravy: "We're all bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride." Far too many spiritual practices are mired in pious seriousness, self-satisfaction and superiority. Imagine, instead, opening ourselves in playful curiosity, honest self-exploration, genuine humility and the greeting, "Dear fellow jerks."