“I’m gonna rape your wife and kids.”
The words honestly didn’t bother me much in the moment. Not because it was a pleasant thought — it’s just that, given the fact I didn’t have any kids and the threat came from a drunk arrestee in the back of my patrol car, it came off as rather toothless. It was one of the last gasps of vitriol from the aspiring imaginary child rapist, AKA drunk and disorderly arrest, I was looking at in the rearview mirror of my patrol car.
It had been a rather tense scene not ten minutes earlier.
I’d been dispatched to a disturbance at a popular club in town, the typical “INTOX MALE REFUSING TO LEAVE PREMISES” I’d see in the call comments every Friday and Saturday night. I hoped it’d end as they usually did, with the resolve of said male quickly ebbing as responding officers jerked their cars into the parking lot, then throwing one last verbal cheap shot at the bouncer before sulking off into the night.
This one was different, though. Whatever the bar had served this guy had inspired him to believe he could take a uniformed police officer that night. Arriving and approaching him in the parking lot, I started issuing verbal commands. Previously alternately yelling at the bouncer and at his own compatriots, who were pleading with him to calm down, his cannon fire swung to me as I walked up. Squaring off with me, he slapped his puffed out chest and informed me he wasn’t afraid of me.
‘Feeling’s mutual,’ I thought. I unholstered my TASER, flicked the safety off and trained the sighting laser on his torso, telling him to interlace his fingers behind his head. He kept yelling, wildly gesticulating. It looked like he was contemplating charging me, even though his first step would be met with the TASER’s fifty thousand volts. My backup arrived, a guy on my squad who worked with the SWAT team, who approached the completely unsuspecting guy from behind, forced him to his knees and got him in cuffs.
They kept him from gesticulating. They didn’t keep him from talking.
So on and on he squawked. He’d have me fired, you see. He knew important people, you see. And then, turning left into view of the jail, he uttered the line of the night, followed up with confident assurances about how good he’d be at committing his promised crime. I wondered, looking at his flushed, sweaty face, about how I’d have reacted a few years prior, entering data into Excel worksheets in the bowels of a sporting goods warehouse. I thought about how little it impacted me now. And in the process I realized something:
From the wrong person, even the most powerful idea is worthless.
I had no regard for the person in my vehicle. I had respect for his person, treated him with all the courtesy I could muster. But I had no regard for him beyond representing a police report that now needed written. And so this idea he proposed, this idea that would be so unspeakably vile, so bone chilling from someone else, came off with the same gravity as I did that time I told my grandparents I was going to sue them for something…when I was eleven. It was perfectly hollow, a boast born of booze that wafted on his sour breath and bounced harmlessly off the Plexiglas spit guard between us.
There are two things I’d tell you based on my experience that night:
- Sometimes someone else is the wrong person. You write something on the Internet. Someone on the other side of the continent sneers at it. What’s your gut level response? Anger. Defensiveness. A desire to defend yourself. Ask yourself, though: If you were talking to a group of friends in the food court in a mall, and a frazzled looking stranger walked up and started heckling you, how would you respond then? Likely amused disbelief, and confidently telling him to pound sand. Why? He’s the wrong person, and his ideas about you are worthless. He doesn’t know you. He doesn’t have context into what you were saying. His life has value, but his words may safely be ignored. Same goes for a boss who goes beyond commenting on job performance to commenting on your character. Or for a family member who puts conditions on their love and acceptance. Or, in my very specific case, for a drunk guy you just arrested.
- Sometimes the wrong person is you. If you don’t have someone’s best interests at heart, your advice doesn’t matter much, even if it’s objectively correct. If you’re not investing in a community you belong to — no matter what that community is — your opinion about how it’s meeting your needs is worthless. For your ideas to have power, you’ve got to be the right person. You have to be the faithful and attentive partner. You have to be the conscientious employee. You have to be the parent showing kindness even in discipline. You have to be the friend who divides sorrow and multiplies joy. When those things are so, your words, your ideas, your opinions and judgments will have newfound power.
Once I booked my foul new friend into the jail, I promptly forgot about him in favor of the requirements of the next call. And the next. And the next.
Until several weeks later.
I stopped a car for an expired license plate, and as was fairly common it turned into a warrant arrest; the driver was flagged as having a misdemeanor warrant, meaning I was compelled to arrest him and take him to jail to eventually meet with a judge. I always winced at delivering this news — you never knew how someone was going to take the idea their day was about to be interrupted by handcuffs, and over time I faced everything from sobbing teenage tears to wannabe tough guys wanting to throw haymakers.
While crestfallen, though, this gentleman took the news without protest, telling me he knew I was only doing what I had to and offering his hands for cuffing. After placing him in the back of my car, I looked again at his driver’s license, and then back at him. He seemed vaguely familiar. I pulled up his report history, and then:
“Well, well. Fancy seeing you again.”
His eyebrows arched after having been drooped and sullen. “What do you mean, officer?”
“You don’t remember our interaction several weeks ago?”
“No…oh, were you the one who arrested me that night?”
“Indeed.” I felt a smug sense of righteousness invading me, started parsing and timing my words for maximum effect. “And frankly, I’m a little surprised to find you this cordial, given some of the things you told me that night.”
“…oh my God. I can’t remember anything from that night. What did I say?”
I looked at him in the rearview mirror. He was very obviously being sincere; you could see the concern etched in his face. I hesitated a beat, giving him a chance to reconsider. I wondered if I should even tell him, but decided it might influence how much he drank going forward, which in my mind would be a public service.
“Well, among other things, you mentioned a desire to sexually assault my spouse and children.”
The color drained from his face as he slumped back in his seat. “Jesus, dude, I mean, officer — I am SO sorry. I had no idea, I had too much to drink, I didn’t mean any of it…”
Panic started clouding his countenance, and I realized he was probably wondering if he was going to be charged with making threats to an officer or something. And I started to feel my smugness ebb away. I thought I’d relish the ‘gotcha’ moment. I didn’t. I judged this gentleman by one interaction, and that was wrong. It was time to make amends. I softened my demeanor.
“That much is plain. I didn’t take personal offense. I knew you were saying it to the badge, not to me. But maybe lay off of whatever you were drinking that night?”
Relief washed over him like surf, and he started spewing reassurances. “One hundred percent officer, thank you, I will, for sure.” The air clear between us, we chatted lightheartedly all the way to jail (except when I told him how close he came to being tased…he found that a little less lighthearted).
And that’s the last thing I learned. Other people’s opinions come and go. Sometimes they’re fueled by alcohol. Sometimes by anger. Or by jealousy. Or depression. Or trauma. Don’t let one expressed opinion characterize your view of someone else, or your view of yourself. Don’t put undue weight on the opinions of the wrong people, or the right people at the wrong time.
And be the right person yourself, doing what you ought. That’s how your opinions, your ideas, your words, will become priceless to the people you care about in life.