I’m a pushover. I have been all my life. I don’t easily get feisty and quarrelsome, and I don’t easily question what others tell me. I want to believe that they are sincere; I want to believe that people naturally tell me the truth, even though I have overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I always say, “I’m not going to let other people’s bad behavior influence the way I decide to behave.” And in an abstract sense, this is correct. We should make our own moral decisions no matter what others do. But there comes a point when others cross too many lines and even easy-going fellows such as myself must take a stand.
To illustrate what I mean I have come up with three examples from literature and film. I
bring these up from memory and these memories may not be clear, but they will be sufficient for the points I want to make.
First of all, for an example of the epitome of a milquetoast, I offer “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I read this short story years ago, and had a hard time and a difficult search on the Internet before I found the title again. But the story itself has remained
vividly with me all this time. Gimpel is a baker in a village in eastern Europe. He is the butt of the villager’s jokes because he is so trusting. His wife constantly cheats on him; his
children are not his own; his neighbors treat him with scorn and ridicule. Through it all he maintains his simple honesty and does not, though he is tempted, give in to the baser and less worthy spirits which surround him. He keeps his integrity, but at what price? I remember wondering, after I had read the story, whether his naiveté was worth the price
he paid, being labeled and treated as a fool for so many years. But this is an example of the flip side of the deal. Some people who are seemingly intimidated by others are merely serene souls with a greater sense of morality, who do not want to give in and descend into the pettiness around them.
Then I thought of Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale in the movie “Network”. This is
an example of a wimp who snaps and has a profound change in personality; he becomes a dynamic presence in the media with his famous rant, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” The network he works for, which was going to fire him, sees his ratings soar, and he becomes a symbol of defiance and outrage. He is the ultimate mouse turned into a lion, and he pays the ultimate price in the end for his rebellion. But at his peak, when he persuades his massive audience to open their windows and shout out, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more,” causing city streets to resound with the cry of rebellion, don’t we all feel sympathy with him and wish we could scream the same?
Finally, I turn to one of my favorite characters in American film, Lester Burnham in “American Beauty”. Talk about the ultimate, the consummate pathetic milquetoast: that’s Lester. Despised by his wife, his daughter, his bosses, his colleagues, and his neighbors, he despises himself even more. He is flabby and sycophantic and utterly without the ability to stand up for himself. But then, he reaches a crisis point and changes. Ostensibly the change is brought on by his smoking pot and lusting after a teenage cheerleader, but to suppose these surface manifestations are the primary motivations would be overly
simplistic. He reached a point where he had had enough. He didn’t want to take it anymore, and he decided not to. He re-crafted his life to re-create himself as an entirely new person, a phenomenon those around him were not able to accept. That’s the trouble with standing up to intimidation, if you have been yielding to it all your life so far: people will not accept it. They will fight back; you have to be prepared for that. In Lester’s case, in the end he was killed – but he died happy, which is better than living the shit-eating life he endured before his metamorphosis.
So, three different examples, three different reactions to intimidation, and I still don’t know if I got the point across that I intended. Gimpel fought intimidation by manifesting moral superiority. Howard Beale fought it by shouting out to the world. Lester Burnham fought it by changing. I can’t say which approach is correct – perhaps a combination of all
three. In my case that’s what seems to do the trick. Some people who know me intimately say that I am too honest, too truthful; I hate to tell even a little white lie: I feel the impurity will come back to haunt me. I shout to the world through my books, my stories, my memoirs, my essays, my website. And I am sculpting myself continually as best I can, trying to change for the better. And why? There are many reasons; I would hate to be accused of being overly simplistic. But one of the reasons is this:
I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.
All right, let’s add a postscript. If I end this here the ending will be overly simplistic. And to be honest, as I said, I really am an easy-going person. Though with open eyes I can see what’s happening out there I rarely get angry about it. I am very slow to anger, if truth be
told. But I do want to tell the truth. And stand up to intimidation. It reminds me of what I once read about yoga: that there is a reason it is called a practice, and that is because you never get it right – you just keep trying every time to do it better. What brought all this on was my reading about the great changes happening in publishing nowadays. I read about the attitudes of publishers and editors and agents and other writers; there is a surfeit of material on this subject. And it is important for me to keep up with such trends. But the temptation for such an easygoing one such as myself is to sway with the breeze,
to ebb and flow with the tide, to be overly influenced by the opinions of those around me. This I must not do. At this point I must take a stand, and do what is right for my own writing, my own career. I have chosen to steer a course that includes both traditional publishing and self-publishing; I require independence because I choose to write in so many diverse fields and genres and I do not wish to compromise what I have to say. Some may applaud and some may criticize, but in the end, all praise or condemnation aside, I must do what I must.