“at a conference on reciprocity, a senior scientist revealed that he kept track on a computer spreadsheet of what he had done for his wife and what she had done for him . . . . The fact that this was his third wife, and that he’s now married to his fifth, suggests that keeping score is perhaps not for close relationships.”—Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2010)
Your boss has made it very clear: if you’re late for work one more time, you’re getting fired. So when you wake up late because of last night’s power outage, you’re freaking out. Because you need this job. Really need this job. In less than ten minutes, you’re out the door and speeding like a demon on the highway. To make your exit, you’re forced to cut some guy off. He lays on his horn and yells out horrible obscenities at you. You feel bad about cutting him off, really you do, but you forgive yourself soon after you get to work on time. Because you had a really good reason. Because you need this job. Really need this job. Of course, the guy you cut off doesn’t know any of this. And he’s red-in-the-face furious, overflowing with righteous indignation. When he gets to work, he tells everyone he knows about the asshole who nearly killed him on the way to work.
Next week, you’re driving to work on the same highway—on time, this time—when some asshole rockets past you at an ungodly speed. Wow, you think to yourself, what an inconsiderate, selfish jerk! Doesn’t he realize how reckless he’s being? A moment later, another asshole cuts you off to make his exit. This time you’re furious. You lay on your horn and yell out horrible obscenities at him. You’re red-in-the-face furious, overflowing with righteous indignation. When you get to work, you tell everyone you know about the asshole who nearly killed you on the way to work. Of course, the guy who rocketed past you at an ungodly speed doesn’t know any of this. He was in a hurry to get to his daughter’s school. The principal called him at work to tell him that a freak accident had left his daughter bleeding and unconscious on the gymnasium floor. The other guy—who cut you off to make his exit—was trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital in time. He felt bad about cutting you off, really he did, but he forgave himself a moment or two after his son was born. Because he had a really good reason: his wife was hemorrhaging severely, and without medical assistance, she and his newborn son might have died.
Like you, I have a self-righteous inner accountant in my head who loves to keep score; loves to keep track of how much I’ve done for you, how much you’ve done for me; how much I owe you, how much you owe me. If he graded us solely on what we did and didn’t do, you’d at least have a chance (albeit a slim chance) at a fair trial. We’d have to correct for the natural human tendency to see (and remember) ALL the good stuff we do and only SOME of the good stuff others do. Still, if we stuck to the facts, the process might, on occasion, produce a just result. But my self-righteous inner accountant isn’t nearly this fair! And yours is, in all likelihood, no better than mine. The lawyer in my head is as unscrupulous as Better Call Saul, as ruthless as Eli Gold, and as mendacious as Karl Rove; he’ll say anything to win, anything to get me off, anything to make me look good.
What’s more, he’s been known to cook the books! How? Well, the self-righteous inner accountant in my head grades you only on what you do or don’t do. Alas, not so for me: I, like you, get points for what I do and don’t do. But I also get points for good intentions, for being considerate, for good stuff I think about doing. For instance, let’s say we’re married, and I want you to stop leaving your dirty clothes on the bathroom floor, whilst you want me to stop leaving the toilet seat up. Every time I see myself putting the toilet seat down, I’ll smile a self-satisfied smile, pat myself on the back, and give myself some points for being a considerate spouse. But, since I’m not you, I won’t be there to see you picking up your dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper six days in a row. I will, however, notice the one time you forget to do it. I’ll notice that one time, on the seventh day, that you left your dirty clothes in a nasty little pile on the bathroom floor. And when I’m telling you off later on, I’ll say that the fact that you failed to pick up after yourself just proves what I’ve long suspected: namely, that you’re a selfish, inconsiderate jerk. Of course you’ll indignantly protest: “But, John, I remembered to do it six days in a row, and, besides, you left the toilet seat up last night, and I told you how important that was to me!” To which I’ll indignantly reply: “But I remembered to put the toilet seat down six days in a row!” Things will, at this point, escalate to screaming and shouting and nowhere nice.
Is there a way out of this familiar story of domestic warfare? I believe there is. All of the truly great wisdom traditions of the world provide us with ways to emancipate ourselves from pointless cycles of resentment and bitterness such as this. From the Roman Stoics—especially Epictetus—we can learn the fine art of forbearance: how to assume the best in those who piss us off, how to be as kind (and forgiving and compassionate) to others as we so often are to ourselves. For instance, if you were driving to work with Epictetus, and some guy cut you off to make his exit, the philosopher would tell you to assume that the guy had a good reason for doing what he did. Maybe his wife’s in labor in the backseat. Maybe he just got a horrible call from his daughter’s school. Maybe he’s gonna get fired if he’s late for work. Does this make cutting someone off in traffic okay? Of course not! But assuming the guy had a good reason takes the sting out of it by shutting up your self-righteous inner accountant. The religious traditions of the world are—at their best—equally good at freeing you from the prison of your own resentment and bitterness. For instance, The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has Christians the world over reciting these salubrious words on a daily basis: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” What’s more, the passage is followed up with an explicit warning: “if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:15). The strategies to be found are diverse, but they all come down to the same thing: you’ve gotta find a way to keep your self-righteous inner accountant in check. Because he’s full of shit. Really he is.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2nd edition)