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In my experience, meanness has been a symptom, not a state of being.  I've met very few truly mean people, and those I have met have also been rather miserable people.  Scrooge was mean, and Scrooge was very unhappy, miserable, even--pathetic.  But Scrooge changed, and he changed when he was shown just how his own actions were affecting other people's image of him.  They despised him, and Scrooge was truly unloved, a state I wouldn't wish on anyone.  But if meanness is a symptom, why do so few mean people get help?  Why don't they examine the problem that meanness is a symptom of, and then work on that problem?

I believe that it's because being mean feels good in a certain way.  It's a powerful way of behaving that tends to make other people react in ways that they really wouldn't react otherwise.  Meanness is a method of domination, and it's a domination that has the cards stacked in your favor when you're mean, for so few people are willing (or even able) to react in kind when you're mean to them.  Redfield touches on the dynamic in The Celestine Prophecy, in the context of a power exchange.  The dominating person diminishes the power of the submitting person and therefore gains power him or herself; the mean person diminishes the power of the person he or she is being mean to and therefore gains that power.  It's a rush, almost like a drug--"look how I can make this person so uncomfortable."

One of my favorite stories in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series has to do with a large, drunk young man getting on a subway train in Japan.  He starts to push and threaten people, and the author of the piece thought that he would have to fight the man.  But then an old man speaks kindly to the young man, inviting him to sit down and talk, and within minutes, the large young man is lying on the bench with his head in the old man's lap, crying as the old man strokes his face.  It's an incredible lesson, one that I think about often.  When I see meanness, I try to think of the hurting in the person being mean.

Pain may explain mean behavior, but it certainly doesn't excuse it.  The problem, though, often lies in the role models a person has had, and how loved or unloved the person feels.  If I feel you love me, I may consider your role modeling when I decide on a certain behavior.  If you're afraid of me or if you avoid me, though, I'm not going to use you as a role model.  I'll use the powerful people as role models, the people who have control in their lives, the people who dominate others.

How can we show love to someone who's being mean or cruel?  It's very difficult to do so--it's always more difficult to love those who most need our love.  They're simply not lovable.  But in refusing or neglecting to love them, we tend to perpetuate their behavior indirectly, and we have to consider that some of their meanness is the responsibility of the community that surrounds them yet neglects them.  Martin Luther King's line from his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" is very relevant here, as it is in many other situations:  "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people."  In another context, he refers to the bad as "people of darkness" and the good as "people of the light."

Can we be people of the light if we don't try to help pull others from the darkness?  Can we truly call ourselves human if we don't try to help other humans who are hurting?  I struggle with this question constantly, and I truly don't know how I can help others who don't even seem to want my help.  But I have to try.  I have to try to find the needs, to recognize the needs, and I have to try to give love, even if it's thrown back in my face.  For even if it's thrown back at me a hundred times, it may be accepted on that one hundred and first time, and then there will be just that bit less meanness in the world, and the world will be just that bit closer to being healed.



Malice drinks one half of its own poison.



Half of the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.

T.S. Eliot


The high-spirited person may indeed die, but he will not stoop to meanness.
Fire, though it may be quenched, will not become cool.



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Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind.

Walter Bagehot


Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean.
It's like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had
gotten. And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally
done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to.

Rebecca Stead
When You Reach Me


My mother says that when Mrs. Rowley is mean, which is generally
the case, it is really because she is just unhappy, and who could
blame her with a husband like that . . . She says this is really the
only reason people are ever mean--they have something hurting
inside of them, a claw of unhappiness scratching at their hearts,
and it hurts them so much that sometimes they have to push it
right out of their mouths to scratch someone else,
just to give themselves a rest, a moment of relief.

Laura Moriarty


When you give a lesson in meanness to a critter or a person,
don't be surprised if they learn their lesson.

Will Rogers


It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in people--kindness
and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling--are the
concomitants of failure in our system.  And those traits we detest,
sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest
are the traits of success.  And while people admire the quality
of the first, they love the produce of the second.

John Steinbeck


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Money is the most important thing in the world. It represents health,
strength, honor, generosity and beauty as conspicuously as the want
of it represents illness, weakness, disgrace, meanness and ugliness.

George Bernard Shaw

Some people have a necessity to be mean, as if they were exercising
a faculty which they had to partially neglect since early childhood.

F. Scott Fitzgerald


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