Let’s not write people off just yet

October 1, 2020 -- Living City

“Let’s not write people off just yet ”
What does it mean to call someone “toxic?”

By Nora Henschen

Recently, one of my high school students told me about a boy in his class whose attempts at humor could generously be described as graceless, and who would often offend those around him by misguided teasing. When I asked my student what he planned to do to help improve the situation, he immediately responded, “Eliminate toxicity. It’s 2020, Ms. Henschen!”

I asked him what exactly this entailed, and he said he had encouraged his friends to permanently stop speaking to, hanging out with, or interacting with the boy in question, as a way of purging his negativity from their midst. When I asked my student if he couldn’t just explain to the rude guy that his jokes were hurting feelings, rather than fully ostracizing him, he told me again that this boy was “toxic,” and that toxic people have to go.

In the days that followed, as I reflected on my student’s bold stance, I couldn’t help but wonder: when did everything become so toxic? It’s a word that in simpler times I associated only with Soviet-era nuclear disasters or cleaning products my mom kept under the sink. But now I hear it used daily to describe everything from friends and relationships, to workplace environments, and even culture as a whole.

Two years ago, the Oxford Dictionary chose “toxic” as their word of the year, as it captured the “ethos, mood, and preoccupations” of 2018. Before I go further, it must be clarified that I am not speaking of those who abuse power or seek to manipulate others, but rather people whose behavior deviates from socially acceptable norms, such as those who might be flakey, self-absorbed, clingy, negative, etc.

I must also admit to a lifelong antipathy towards buzzwords and trends. As an eight-year-old girl, I distinctly remember thinking that “this Harry Potter thing is really getting out of hand,” and as an adult woman I am always careful to keep my avocados far from my toast.

Given this shortcoming, I was at first unsurprised by my own aversion to the “Eliminate Toxicity” mantra, which seemed to come at me from all sides. Upon doing some leisurely googling on the topic, I was quickly buried in articles warning me against 10 types of people I “should avoid at all costs,” 5 types of friends to “get rid of immediately,” and 15 coworkers who “make you miserable and drag you down.”

What emboldens us to write people off so confidently? There have certainly been times in my own life where, because of stress or illness, I have shown the same faults that would seem to qualify one as “toxic.” But my friends didn’t treat me as someone who was poisonous, but rather as someone who was human.

Each of us certainly bears the responsibility to improve, to become healthier, wiser, more loving. But often it is within our relationships that we change and are purified. No one grows more loving alone.

Perhaps another reason why this word “toxic” seems so unhelpful is that it is a rather lazy descriptor. When helping my violin students analyze their own sound, I must frequently remind them not to use words such as “good” and “bad,” which are extremely unspecific, in favor of words which instead give information, such as “smooth,” “scratchy,” “strong,” etc. Though it is certainly easier to blame a problem on overall “toxicity”, rather than identify specifics, this can lead us to believe that there is nothing which we can concretely do to help the person or improve the situation.

No person alive is entirely good, or entirely evil. Sometimes being a person can get very messy, and most of us will or have experienced periods of life which are marked by ambiguity, contradiction and discrepancies between our values and our actions. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are tainted, unlovable or failures, just that we are people.

There will always be those who stress and hurt and drain us, and limiting our interactions with these people is often healthy and appropriate. But before we get rid of a friend or dismiss someone whom we don’t find acceptable, let us remember the words of Jesus, upon visiting the house of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Though the crowd grumbled that he should stay with a sinner, Jesus told Zacchaeus, “Today I must stay at your house … for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (see Lk 19:5, 10)

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