Perhaps an Overreaction

October 3, 2011

I have a pet peeve. Well… in all fairness, I have many. For the majority of them I am able to quell my snark impulse, but was reminded today of one that I haven’t yet managed to master, and which gets under my skin with impressive efficiency:

“I thought about doing [x], but didn’t.”

This is what I hear when someone tells me such a tale:

“I realized I could do something to save you time or money or brighten your day, but decided I value my own time and comfort more than yours.”

Now here’s the thing: I’m totally fine with this being true. Each of us values our own energy and experience over that of others, because it’s the only one we know with absolute certainty to be true: any time we hypothesize about what someone else might like, there’s an inherent layer of abstraction. We can be pretty damn sure, but since we each only exist in our own head and no one else’s, there’s no way to be absolutely, completely certain.

And that’s is exactly the way it should be — when this equation becomes skewed, we end up with Martyr Complex situations, when one participant in a relationship (any relationship) spends all their energy on what they perceive to be the needs of others instead of their own, and doesn’t understand why no one is doing the same for them. It’s unproductive, inefficient, and annoying.

So the fact that this happens, that people make that choice, doesn’t bother me. About 5% of what does bother me is that the statement borders on an “I knew what was right and what was wrong, but chose to do what was wrong” sort of a sentiment. It’s an acknowledgement of a conscious choice between a good, kind, selfless action and a selfish alternative, and the active choice irks me more than if the thought simply never crosses a person’s mind at all — innocent ignorance or forgetfulness I can forgive (we’ve all got a lot of crap running through our brains), but willful negligence… well, I can forgive it, but it takes a bit more effort to do so.

The other 95% though is the fact that statements of this formula are almost always offered with pride, as though the thought matters as much as the gesture would have.

Sometimes it’s true. If someone says, “I saw a billboard on the highway that referenced an inside joke we’ve had since we were seven years old and wanted to pull over, climb up to it, and have my companion take a picture, but we were racing to the hospital to see my dying grandmother, who took her last breath five minutes after we arrived,” then I value that thought quite a bit.

On the other hand, I once had an intern tell me, “I was going to set up the studio for this morning’s session last night, but was too lazy.” I was neither amused, nor empathetic, nor appreciative.

In the vast majority of situations, it is action that counts — not the thought. Everyone thinks; everyone has ideas. What makes anyone notable is their propensity (or lack thereof) to act on said inclinations. And while the title of this post readily acknowledges the likelihood that my reaction is disproportionate to the crime, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m unimpressed at best, offended at worst, and (almost) invariably bothered when the situation arises. Tell me something useful, or don’t say anything at all.

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