Jackie at the crossroads

Jackie at the crossroads September 19, 2010

So you’re sitting around with a group of friends talking, the conversation skipping cheerfully from one topic to another, turning eventually, somehow, to a discussion of the best and worst public restrooms you’ve each encountered.

Your friend Jackie says that she is terrified of the bathrooms at the airport. Because of the spiders.

Most of the group hasn’t heard about the spiders, so Jackie explains. There’re these poisonous spiders from South America that stow away on international flights and wind up living in most airports and, because they like cool, damp places, they settle in bathrooms. Under the toilet seats in airport bathrooms. And one of them bit this woman when she was using the restroom and she died.

“That’s a myth,” your friend Dan says, reaching for his iPhone.

“But this girl I work with told me about it,” Jackie says. “She read it in a magazine. And she said her cousin knew the lady who died.”

“Nope,” Dan says. “Urban legend. Look.”

He hands her the phone with this page from Snopes.com on the screen, disproving the story.

Now Jackie is at a moral crossroads. She has to make a choice. The actual facts do not appear to be in dispute, but she is invested in this story. She has told it before, several times. She has endured quite a bit of discomfort at airports because she believed it to be true. Forced to choose by the Snopes page confronting her on Dan’s phone, she will either have to disavow or double-down.

When it comes to it, this kind of moral crossroads is rarely experienced as a difficult dilemma. A choice must be made, but that choice will almost always be based on the kind of person making it — based on the character and habits and practice that have shaped that person up until this moment of choosing. A good Jackie will take one path, a bad Jackie will take the other.

Good Jackie will quickly realize that her co-worker led her astray. The persuasive personal embellishments about the magazine and the cousin must have been outright lies. Good Jackie may have to talk with her co-worker about this, and will trust her less in the future.

She will then be dismayed to recall the other occasions on which she repeated this story, reminding herself that she will need to correct that at her next opportunity. That will be somewhat embarrassing, as it will involve admitting to a measure of naivete, but Good Jackie, being good, long ago realized that such small embarrassments were never as painful or as damaging as the sort of preposterously defensive lies one becomes trapped in if one attempts to live a life wholly free of embarrassment.

Good Jackie, being good, also has a sense of humor and that will be her saving grace. Having a sense of humor entails finding a joke funny even when you yourself are the butt of it, as Good Jackie quickly realizes she has been here.

“Oh my goodness,” she says, laughing. “When I got back from California I had to pee so bad and I held it all the way home because of the stupid spiders.” She works this into a long, funny story about an enormously uncomfortable cab ride ending with a massively overlarge tip because she couldn’t bear to wait one more second for change. That story will, for you and all your friends gathered there, be forever linked to the urban legend about the South American toilet spiders. None of you will ever spread that legend, but you’ll retell it again and again just to set up the story of poor Jackie squirming in the cab, doing those lamaze breathing exercises the whole way home. (It’s funniest when Jackie tells it because of the faces she makes when she does the breathing thing.)

And forever after, whenever any two of you are together in an airport, you will make jokes about toilet spiders and you will laugh warmly because Jackie is your friend and you love her.

The story of Bad Jackie does not end as happily. Bad Jackie chooses the other path, doubling down and defending the story despite the evidence confronting her on Dan’s iPhone.

Like Good Jackie, she also recalls having told the toilet spider story many times. Unlike Good Jackie, she tended to appropriate the personal embellishments for herself — saying she read it in a magazine, and that her own cousin knew the unfortunate woman. That wasn’t true, but it wasn’t something she had planned to say or thought about much even as she was doing it. It just seemed like that was how the story needed to be told. That was what made it exciting and fascinating to her, so she needed to make it just as exciting and fascinating for the people she told it to as well. But because she said those things, her own credibility is tightly tied to the credibility of the story. Accepting that the story is false would be much more embarrassing for her than it would be for Good Jackie.

Bad Jackie cannot tolerate embarrassment, which means it is very important to her that she is never wrong — almost as important to her as pointing out when others are. Bad Jackie has got it in her head that this is where her value comes from. If she is right and others are wrong, then they are bad and she is good. So if she were to accept being wrong — even due to having been innocently deceived — then she would be bad. And she knows that deep down she has a good heart and so that can’t be true and she must be right after all. She must be.

Her identity is at stake, you see. Her self-concept and with it her self-worth. This doesn’t excuse what she does next, but it can help to understand, and to understand is always a step closer toward forgiving.

“It happened!” she insists, swatting away Dan’s phone and suggesting he’s gullible to take “some blog’s word” over her own.

There’s a moment of tension as the rest of you exchange the nervous glances you share whenever Jackie gets like this, telepathically communicating “Just drop it — you know how she is.” You can see the fight-or-flight instinct taking over in Jackie and Big Drama seems imminent. Dan looks like he’s about to say something — this Dan is a less patient, less kind person than the Dan in the other variation, because this Dan has spent years hanging out with Bad Jackie instead of with Good Jackie — but just then Susan cuts him off and saves the day by telling a long funny story about the spiders in the outhouse when she was dating Outdoorsy Guy and he took her to his cabin in Maine for the weekend. This segues into a lively, nonthreatening conversation about whether indoor plumbing might constitute a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for romance. Everyone is glad and relieved to move on as though the whole bit with Bad Jackie and the toilet spiders hadn’t happened.

But everyone remembers. And whenever any two of you, not including Jackie, are together in an airport, you will make jokes about toilet spiders and laugh, coolly, because Jackie has been your friend forever and you love her. But sometimes it’s just so much easier when she’s not around.



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