I’m finally trying to be a good person

I’ve worked on a lot of things about myself during my 5½ year journey of addiction recovery. Early on, it was mostly just about understanding how I got to be the way I did, while also working on becoming addiction-free. Eventually, once that stuff takes hold, you start to gain clarity on other life issues, understanding how they all connect and hopefully learn able to tweak them if necessary. Sure, it’s been half a decade, but I’ve recently made the decision to consciously become a nicer, more accommodating person.

Yeah, it sounds ridiculous and most of you good people probably don’t have to work at it, but for somebody who has focused on both his lack of empathy and one-upsmanship as a major part of recovery, being a “nice guy” has never come naturally. I need cognitive behavior therapy to change.

I remember as a kid when I watched pro wrestling, I found the villains so much more compelling, especially the ones who portrayed characters that honestly didn’t believe they were the bad guy. I was never able to put this phenomenon into words until I read a line in Chuck Klosterman’s book I Wear the Black Hat that described villains as people who “…knew the most, but cared the least.”

Fake Altruism

I never saw myself as a typical villain. I just recognized that I had a certain moral flexibility and lack of empathy that many around me didn’t have. I didn’t care if you liked me because there were always plenty of people who did and I worked in the media for 20 years, where people are constantly kissing your ass for coverage. It skews the need to actually be a good person.

Even worse, I think I had a lot of people convinced I was a good person. I think that’s really what the shunning of me post-arrest was mainly about. Yeah, I committed a disgusting, heinous crime, but I think people were pissed off this “good guy” actually turned out to not be so nice.

And it’s hard to say they were wrong about this discovery. I had the act of seeming to be altruistic nailed.

There was an annual dinner for the local abused woman’s shelter where they would get 10-12 well-known people in Maine to be celebrity waiters and waitresses. Along with serving people their food, throughout the event, the “celebrities” were asked to either display a talent (one of the anchors from the NBC affiliate played the flute, for example) or just come up with their own crazy, humorous plans to raise money.

I was asked back year after year because I made them the most money. I re-enacted the water drop scene from Flashdance for $200, wouldn’t stop singing Johnny Cash until enough money was raised and arm wrestled a bunch of women, with each of us putting up $25 and the loser paying the charity. I know that I was irritating to the organization running the thing, because like half the celebrities, I was drunk an hour into the dinner, but hey, money talks.

The event was held in May, a time when it starts getting sticky and humid in Maine. By that point, my hair was always long because I didn’t cut it in the winter. I usually got sick of it and just buzzed the whole thing down to about a half-inch. I always wanted to go completely bald but never had the guts.

The day of the event in 2013, I was having drinks with the mayor of my town. We both liked to drink a lot, he was also a repeat celebrity and we knew showing up half-in-the-bag made it easier to be the dancing monkeys the crowd wanted. We somehow started talking about our mutual love of pro wrestling. He and I hatched a plan.

To end the night, the mayor and I told the audience that we were going to have a beer drinking contest and they could wager with each other, but the loser had to give the money to charity. We also created another stipulation. If the audience could raise $500 in two minutes, we’d up the stakes and the loser would get their head shaved. When the two minutes was up, we’d raised over $700.

In the “contest” I just poured the beer all over my face with my mouth open and let it dribble down the sides. I emptied my can first, claiming victory while the mayor cried foul. I grabbed the clippers and plugged them in, getting ready to cut the mayor’s hair, but the emcee interjected, saying he thought what went down wasn’t fair, and the audience agreed. He said they should take a vote who gets their head shaved.

As I started to scream that wasn’t fair and act like a crybaby, the audience voted. I lost. The emcee and another waiter held me in a chair while my head was shaved. The audience went wild. I whined the whole time. The audience ate it up.

After the dinner as the hosts were thanking the mayor and I for making such a huge potential sacrifice for a good cause, the NBC anchor came over to us.

“I can’t believe the two of you came up with that bet,” she said.

He and I looked at each other and smiled.

“Wait…” she said, putting it together. “Was this….?”

“Danielle,” I said, “Do you think it was just a coincidence there were hair clippers here?”

“Pro Wrestling 101,” said the mayor.

“Oh my God,” she said. “You guys are evil.”

She said it with a laugh, but as I was driving home, my phone and Facebook feed were already blowing up with pictures and people from the community talking about it. I’d love to say it was a surprise, but it wasn’t. It was exactly the reaction I wanted and expected. People were talking.

I didn’t care if we raised any money for the abused women’s shelter. I just wanted to run a huge con on the audience – and not let them in on it. I wanted people to tell me how awesome and selfless I was for a good cause. It would be another con, because only I knew I was planning on shaving my head that weekend. I just figured out how to make a giant spectacle of it with me looking like the altruistic good guy when all was said and done.

It was how I operated for years. I made myself out to look like a genuinely caring, community-oriented guy. I was neither of those things.

Trying it For Real This Time

While I’ve been ostracized from my community to the point I’ll never be able to be an active participant again, there’s nothing that says I can’t be a decent guy.

On the recent month-long road trip I went on with my daughter, I was in a genuinely good, caring mood the entire time. I was done probation, which meant I could roam out of state as I wanted and I’d saved enough money over a long time so I didn’t have to pinch pennies.

My wife said our 20-year-old princess and I would butt heads, but we never did. I let her listen to the music she wanted and learned that she’d get tired of it after a couple hours, or she’d take a nap. Except for the rap, it actually wasn’t that bad.

I started letting people cut in front of me at highway construction sites when lanes would go from three-to-two-to-one, even those miscreants who ride to the front in the breakdown lane. I began making small talk with waitresses, front desk clerks and people around us when we’d be waiting in line for stuff. I started tipping 25% if the waiter or waitress did a really good job, leaving nice notes on the receipt. I held doors much longer than usual and helped an elderly lady down some stairs. When a customer berated a counter worker at a fast food place, I told the girl she was working hard, doing a good job, and the customer was wrong.

It turns out, it feels good to genuinely do things for the right reasons and not expect anything in return.

I found myself actually looking for opportunities to be nice on the trip and it’s carried over to real life. Much like the cognitive behavioral training (CBT) that I used to change my patterns, beliefs and other aspects of my life during early recovery, I’m using those skills now, searching for ways to not only do the right thing, but hopefully make someone else’s life better. I’m not talking about kidney donating levels, just little things like giving the toll booth attendant $5 to pay for me and the four people behind me.

Yeah, I know this stuff should come naturally, and does to most people, but thank god I’ve got my CBT training.

I see this second half of my life as a bit of a do-over for the mistakes and problems (some my fault, some not) of the first half. Now, it’s a nicer do-over.

 

 

Are people inherently good or bad?

Neither. People just are. Social norms, acceptable behavior, laws and regulations all change over time. The behavior of someone in Year 317 or 1317 may seem to stand in stark contrast to behavior labeled as acceptable today. Were those people bad and didn’t know better? If we’re so advanced, will people in 500 or 1000 years look at us as immoral cretins?

When I was arrested and charged with possession of underage pornography, I went from a “good” person to “bad” person in the blink of an eye for many people. Nothing else mattered. I wonder if in revising their opinion, they decided I was secretly bad prior or was it just that now they knew a piece of information about me, it eliminated everything I’d accumulated in the good column?

One of the more interesting evolutionary traits of humans (and I’m talking over millions of years, not hundreds) is the increasing need for order, averages and the status quo. We crave to know where to set the bar when it comes to every product, behavior or thought we produce or consume.

People are neither inherently good or inherently bad. People are inherently fearful. They are scared that they will fall outside of their desired norm – and that’s even true of the most alternative anarchist. We go with the crowd, even if that crowd is a minority.

When people are looking through their black and white lenses because shades of gray are scary, I’m reminded of the oft-used phrase, “Hitler loved his dogs.” Can somebody be pure evil if they still love dogs? If the person who is the gold standard of evil has a soft spot for puppies is anybody 100% bad?

Well, no and nobody is 100% good, because again, those are labels that I’m using with my own unique definition. You have your own definition. Hitler existed. His behavior has never been accepted as OK. But what if the Nazis won? There’s a good chance we’d be living in a world that looked back on Hitler through very different eyes and reached a very different conclusion about his place in history.

When I was arrested and convicted for my crime, I know that many people took an eraser to all of the things I had ever done that were seen as good. I raised tens of thousands of dollars for and brought awareness to plenty of local causes. I regularly volunteered my time or donated advertising space in my magazine. I made dozens of filmmakers’ dreams come true with the film festival I ran for three years. I’m not going to run through a list, but I went from being a “good” person in many people’s eyes to a “bad” person because the one act of convincing a teenage girl to masturbate online trumps everything else I’ve ever done.

Should it? It’s not up for me to decide. I accept and live with the punishment I was given. I’ve come to understand what happened and for me, it takes place beyond good and bad. It was more an issue of sick vs. healthy. But I can’t stop people from viewing me as bad.

People are not one-dimensional enough at their core to be inherently anything. Labeling and stereotyping makes things easy. I think it was George Carlin who said something like, “There’s no reason for sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. If you just take a few minutes to get to know somebody, you’ll have legitimate reasons not to like them!”

I want people to like me and I want to feel like I’m contributing something to society. I think I achieved it in my life prior to my arrest. I want to be seen as good. With what I did, that may never happen for a vast majority, even if I find the cure for cancer.

What’s important for my recovery is that I know that I once had the capacity to do things that most people could not. I was very sick when I made the decision to talk to women in online chat rooms. Even most sick people don’t do that. Then I made the decision to urge several to take off their clothes. Even more sick people don’t do that. Then I ignored the fact that there were females who might not have yet reached the age of 18, but continued the behavior. We’re now getting into a small number of sick people…but it’s what I was capable of, sick or not.

Does the fact I have the capacity to sink this low make me inherently bad? I think statistics suggest it makes me inherently rare and someone society correctly punished and has determined tabs should be kept on for a while.

There is no one-word, conditional-for-the-world-we-live-in-at-this-moment label that can apply to anyone. If we are inherently anything, it’s complex.