Chumps and Jerks October 25th, 2007

At its best, the story of Groundhog Day makes us feel that anything is possible, that impossible progress is possible, that forward motion is possible – even when it seems impossible. We can break through walls, we can get across rivers – all without sledge-hammers and boats – and that the secret to accomplishing these things is already within us. We hold the key. As the movie shows, it is character which creates boundaries and character which can break through them.

All well and dandy from the point of view of our own character, but what about other people? What if their goals conflict with ours? What if their progress is somehow dependent on our lack of it – and vice versa? This, of course, creates “conflict”, the stuff of drama. And frequently there is no compromise available – there will be a winner and a loser. Which one will you be?

Some people insist on being the winner no matter what the circumstances. I call these people “Jerks.” Others prefer anything to conflict and tend toward self-defeat. I call these people “Chumps.” The jerks get their way. The chumps eat it.

The thing is, most people are not all one or the other. Circumstances arise and you make a judgment call – will I be a chump or a jerk? The horror to me is that sometimes there is no other choice. In the end I will have been one or the other of these undesirable characters.

Jerks, I should point out, are not necessarily unpleasant people. Many have developed methods which include flattery, self-deprecation, gift-giving, and charm. In the end they get what they want and you’re still thinking, “What a great guy!” By the same token, chumps can be solid, powerful people, who in giving ground somehow gain power through their unselfishness, lack of ego, consideration, generosity, and perspective. Not to put too fine a point on it, but someone who spends his life administering to the sick, feeding the hungry, empowering the powerless, and even “dying for our sins” is, by my definition, a considerable chump. So you see it’s not a bad thing, but it is a choice.

Early on in my Hollywood experience I knew that my character would be tested by this powerful and sometimes ugly industry and I was determined to survive with my integrity and my sense of humor intact.

And then came my first trial – my agent declared that he was dumping all of his clients except for a small handful, and would only be dealing with their issues exclusively. He was clearly disillusioned by his brief Hollywood career (“Somebody goes on strike every two years. What kind of business is this?”) and was dropping out of the busy networking hustle that is agenting. From his point of view he would be working harder for fewer clients. From my point of view, he was dropping out of the network and would not be connected enough to know who was looking for what, what projects were floating around. I suspected that my loyalty to him would ill serve me, and I am big on loyalty. This has marked me as a super-chump from my first days in the business. But I had just begun my Hollywood career and did not want to be stupid and self-defeating. I chose not to be a chump.

I chose instead to be a jerk. I mean, I was polite about it, as friendly and complimentary and I could be. But I left that agent, to his bewilderment. He didn’t know why I would leave before he had ever done poorly by me, which he never had. It broke my heart – but I never looked back. The incident made me aware of this chump/jerk arrangement, and I continue to try to be aware and to take responsibility for my choices.

But it leads back to one of the big challenges of repetition and redemption – if your only two choices are to be a chump or a jerk, how does either one allow for the emergence of a happy, enlightened, positive individual? There is always a joy to be diminished by accomplishment. Could this be where the movie and real life differ? Is true humanity somehow about not getting to be that perfect individual?

Hey – I’m just blogging, here.


Comment by Al Long
2007-11-09 07:12:58

Maybe your jerk and chump analysis could benefit by a weaver’s analogy. Weave something of durable and comfortable threads and you make something useful. Weave it of entirely durable thread and it’ll feel like body armor. Weave it entirely of comfortable thread and it’ll fall apart before long. Isn’t getting the right mix the issue here?

Comment by Dman
2007-11-09 08:12:37

Very well stated, sir. The exact recipe of that weave depends on the weaver. What you call “Getting the right mix” may indeed be the issue if your goal is to have the best fabric. But this in fact tells you nothing. Best fabric for what? Is it an all purpose cloth anybody can use in any situation? Does this garment need to be more durable than comfortable? You could even say that the weaver IS the fabric, the sum total of all of the chump/jerk decisions he has made. I agree, personally, in a striving for good balance. But here’s a question: does Phil strive for balance? Is it a daily balance or an overall life-long balance? Does his intent have anything to do with it, or does he just do what he does and, in without intention, his own particular weave finds and defines him?

Comment by Al Long
2007-11-09 16:54:06

Is it striving for balance? Or is it wavering back and forth? Phil has his dark moments in the film. Many of them. Yet he has a core of decency. Many a lesser man might have gone on a homicidal bender in those darker moments. Ned or the fellows on the radio or even whoever was playing “The Pennsylvania Polka” might have set off an otherwise normal person stuck to deal with them over and over and over. Phil only tried to bump himself (and to be fair, the groundhog) off. Maybe that’s balance. Maybe it’s an average measure of how far the needle swings in each direction.

2008-02-05 16:34:36

[…] in this situation is not particularly generous.  These people are acting like jerks (see entry “Chumps and Jerks”).  They’re driving recklessly, they have no sense of community, and their taste in music is – […]

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