“I wish he would just die!” my colleague bellowed.
It has been more than 35 years since the rest of us in the community newspaper’s tiny office heard this occasional (sometimes frequent) angry litany.
Usually, our editor colleague blew his stack after fielding a call from a critical reader. Quite often the complaining call was from someone who had sought the newspaper’s help in promoting an upcoming event or taking note of an organizational anniversary. It hadn’t come out just as the person had wanted, so he/she called to complain and usually simply would not let up.
In his bluntly polite way, the newsman would listen as the complaint was filed, try to explain why the final story appeared as it did and then would gently hang up the phone after the call ended.
The newsroom was small. We easily overheard each other’s calls. It was easy to detect friction in a call, even though we could only hear one party’s words.
“I wish he would just die!” was usually only the beginning of the show. Our editor’s desk shared its profile with a haystack. That was back in the pre-desktop computer era, and paper proliferated. It especially proliferated on my friend’s desk. He leaped to his feet to shout his displeasure and inevitably brushed the paper stack (pile), setting it in motion and cluttering the floor. Or he would bump a full cup of coffee and create an even bigger mess. Then he would ask for emphasis: “Why doesn’t he just die?”
I don’t believe for a minute that my colleague actually wished death on anyone in our community. In part, he let his indignance gain control over him as sort of a moment of entertainment for the rest of us. To be sure, he was displeased, and he had a dramatic way of expressing his displeasure. But it was a small town, and the newspaper had been a downtown fixture forever. Our editor would warmly welcome the same person the next morning when he visited the office in person.
I was bothered by more than my colleague’s crude reaction. It concerned me that some of the most persistent complainers in our town were church-related customers, a few of them local pastors. I thought our editor would have benefitted from more positive feedback from these particular representatives of the local faith community. Thank goodness, most of their church-related counterparts were respectful.
As a Christian, I would hardly relish pushing anyone into an angry reaction. I would especially not want anyone to believe that their life — or the world — might be better off if I were no longer among the living.
Most of us are tempted to protect our own turf and our own interests in part because that is the societal norm. When I was a youngster, my parents told me to stand up to bullies. They were as aware as I that I was always among the smallest boys in my class. Their advice sounded noble; I learned instead to avoid troublemakers. (For me, it was the safer course!)
Sometimes we become so overly defensive (or offensive) that our Christian influence suffers. We miss opportunities to demonstrate that Christ offers a contrast to what we have come to expect is normal self-serving human behavior.
My friend was a bachelor during those years; later he discovered his soulmate, fell in love, married and subsequently became an active churchman in spite of some less-than-perfect Christian examples in his life. I’m glad he grew beyond those “I-wish-he-would-just-die!” tirades.
But I may remember those tirades until I die. The fact is, I benefitted from them. They influenced me to attempt to be more intentionally Christ-like in day-to-day situations. Perhaps most of us at least wish we didn’t have to deal with unpleasant people in unpleasant situations. The example of Christ himself and our early Christian forebearers remind us that such situations present us with enormous opportunities to impact not only individuals but the world.
No one said that following Christ would always be pleasant, or easy or even safe. Our only guarantees for safety and security are eternal.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.