Realizing that you have to do better is a good start, but it’s only a start, and we all betray our best intentions sometimes.
If you’re at all inclined towards women’s rights, the name “Gabe from Penny Arcade” (a.k.a. @CwGabriel) should inspire an instant face-palm. Not only has he been magnificently intransigent on the Dickwolves controversy (top tip: if you’re going to apologize, don’t take it back), but his belligerent statements on transgendered women were cringeworthy. Which, given that his bawdy humor has made him an idol to millions, is a little terrifying.
Then, on January first, a heartfelt blog post. He admitted he had become the kind of bully he loathed, and vowed to change. It’s a magnificent blog-post, full of honest self-introspection and a merciless examination of his behavior.
I’m here to tell you that Gabe still has a few feet left to stick in his mouth.
Before 2014 ends, I’m pretty sure we’ll see at least one more collective Internet head-desk, courtesy of an insensitive statement by Mr. Krahulik. Which is not to say that Gabe doesn’t mean well, but… well, he’s had the epiphany.
The epiphany is not the solution.
Hollywood likes to tell you those two things are identical, because melding the moment of realization with the personality-transforming change makes for a nice comforting story. Like when my Mom gave up smoking.
When I was five years old, I threw a nickel into a wishing well and chirped, “I wish Mommy would stop smoking because I don’t want her to die!” My mother was horrified. She hadn’t thought her two-pack-a-day habit was all that bad, even though her fingertips had turned brown. But no; my sole desire made her see just what a nicotine addict she was.
So she quit. Cold turkey.
In the Hollywood version of events, Mom would have never touched a cigarette again.
Which she didn’t… mostly. When things got stressful, she broke down and snuck a cigarette from my Uncle Tommy. Or she’d buy a pack at the Corner Store, smoke one guiltily, toss out the rest. Occasionally she’d have one too many drinks and find a Pall Mall between her fingers.
But those lapses got fewer and farther between. By the time she told me that story at the age of fifteen, I was shocked, because as far as I could recall, my Mom had never smoked.
She’d transformed herself completely, but it took years of lapses.
That’s how real life works.
When you’re making a change – and I mean a big, life-swinging change, like being honest with your partners or becoming more sensitive to peoples’ needs – you are fighting decades of bad habits. Your instincts become the enemy, because the instant you go on auto-pilot you find a cigarette in your mouth. You can’t relax, because relaxing means forgetting, and forgetting means you’re doing the dumb thing again.
You have to learn to not be you, which is exhausting.
Sometimes your stupidity even used to be a strength, like it was for Gabe. You learn warped habits to survive in hostile conditions – habits that will utterly destroy you when you’re free of the monsters you couldn’t escape.
Maybe your abusive spouse taught you to swallow all your emotions and never tell the truth. That layer of distrust stopped you from getting your nose broken, once. But now you’re free of him, and not only are you entangled in unsatisfying relationships because your natural reflex is to conceal your needs, but doing the “right thing” and being honest makes you feel powerless.
It’s a miracle that any of us change. Yet people do, every day.
So if you’re trying to change, you gotta realize this microfailing is part of the process. It’s like running a marathon every day – some days, you’re going to collapse at mile 15.
The trick is to not use that failure as an excuse to give up. You screwed up today. That’s sad. Don’t let today’s failure take tomorrow down with it. Get back at the starting line, and eventually you’ll run that race daily. (Because running it regularly helps make it automatic behavior.)
And if you’re watching someone trying to change, then do them a favor and don’t withdraw all support the moment they screw up again. They had a moment of clarity, which is more than most people got, and they’re trying very hard to steer their lives by that increasingly foggy light. They’ll stumble. Yet if you focus on their stupidity as opposed to the nobility of the attempt, they’re far more likely to give up.
Which is not to say that you’re obliged to endure their idiocy. “Walking away” is always an option, because if someone’s disappointed you enough, well, you are not required to make yourself miserable in the hopes that your friend will eventually stop stabbing you in the eye. (One could argue that if you’re sticking around, you’re in fact tacitly supporting their idiocy.)
But if you leave? Allow for the possibility of change, folks. I’ve got a handful of abusive buddies who I don’t talk to any more. People tell me they’re a lot nicer, these days. And my answer, which I think is the correct one, is, “I’m sure they’re better people now. But I spent too much time cringing in expectation of the next mean thing they did. I’m not willing to take that risk, because I don’t want to spend my days braced for the next blow.”
So maybe you don’t wanna follow Gabe on Twitter or read Penny Arcade any more. I totally support your right to do that. But don’t fall into the Hollywood trap of thinking “Hey, he promised he was going to be better, and he said something stupid, so he clearly lied! He’s evil!”
No. He promised to be better. Not perfect. (Hoo boy, is he not perfect.) And he’s got a long road to go, fighting against deeply-ingrained instincts. And if he snaps at someone, with a hundred thousand people watching, it’s gonna go viral.
People say “Good intent is not a magic wand,” to remind us – and properly – that “meaning well” doesn’t remove the hurt that people do. But there’s a flip side to that in that “Good intent is not a magic wand that prevents screw-ups.” You can really try to be awesome on any given day, your heart brimming with goodness, and all it takes is one slip-up to come off as cold and insensitive.
Yet intent counts for something. Trying counts for something.
So though Gabe may fail on any given day, let us shed cynicism. Let us hope that we’re more than the sum of our mistakes. Let us hope that Gabe walks the path of my mother, now smoke-free for three decades, and that Gabe’s moment of self-revelation can chain up and into creating a better man who speaks influentially to an audience of dudebros.
But between now and then lies a long road, and he’s gonna screw up. So’s anyone who’s doing anything significant.
That’s not a bad thing.