I’ve been writing recently about arrogance. Let’s explore the flip-side of that coin and talk about humility. I’ve been thinking about it because I recently participated in an art project that questioned people about their belief systems and how those systems affect their day-to-day actions. The final question the collaborators asked me was whether there was a media icon or image that accurately reflected my core belief. I couldn’t come up with an answer immediately, but later, I thought of Joey Buttafuoco.
For those who don’t know, Joey Buttafuoco was the love-object of the "Long Island Lolita" scandal that hit New York in the nascent 90s. I can’t speak for what those across the nation thought of him, but to New Yorkers Joey Buttafuoco was a clown. He was a stereotypical garish suburbanite in his tacky tracksuits, fuzzy pompadour,* and blatant rejection of any responsibility whatsoever for the attempted murder of his wife. In fact, Buttafuoco capitalized on his insta-celebrity through talk show appearances, television specials, and, rumor had it, his own television sit-com pilot.** Despite all this, we loved Joey, because any one of us was considered better than him. If we didn’t dress better, we were better looking. If we weren’t better looking, we were smarter. And if we weren’t smarter, we were at least smart enough to have not gotten involved with an underaged paramour who got caught trying to shoot our spouses and then celebrated the press it got us.
It’s difficult, and I frequently don't succeed, but I try to remember that I’m not better than anyone else, including the Joey Buttafuoco’s of the world. This is an unpopular sentiment. The few times I’ve engaged in conversation on this topic, I’m usually met with a dismissive, “Of course we’re better than certain people. Aren’t you better than Hitler?” Well. Actually. No, I’m not. WHAT?!! Who’s not better than Hitler? I don’t have any real argument to support my position, except that the minute you begin to think you’re better than Hitler, you become Hitler. I mean, Hitler was who he was because he thought he was better than many, many other people. And if you’ve ever considered yourself better than anyone, you too have the capacity to be mini-Hitler yourself. All you have to do is to start treating the person you think you’re better than as anything “other” than yourself, and you set up the first step toward persecution – the objectification of a fellow human being.
I know there’s a great deal of resistance to this idea, but just try it on – try to imagine yourself as equal to Hitler. Too hard? Then try to imagine yourself as equal to Joey Buttafuoco. Still too hard? Try it with the co-worker/classmate/professor/grocery store clerk/neighbor who drives you crazy. At least remember this experiement the next time someone tries to convince you that religion is the opiate of the masses. Perhaps religion is the opiate of the masses. But a sincere spiritual practice - real attempts to practice the doctrines codified by religion – is probably some of the hardest shit you’ll ever attempt in your life.
* Unfortunately, photos of Buttafuoco at the time the scandal was hot can no longer be found on the internet, otherwise, you’d see what I’m talking about.
** Silly me, spending all that money on an arts degree when all I really needed to do to get my own television show was to play a pivotal role in the attempted murder of my spouse.
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