We used to play this game in theater class in high school (yeah, I was in theater) in which the participants were to ad lib one upping one another. The trick was to start modestly and then increase the one ups in very small increments. You couldn't, for example, start with, "I signed my first professional football contract today, married a supermodel, and got a personal message from the President in my voicemail box congratulating me on how badass I am and how much he wishes he were me." I mean, where do yo go from there?
There was a flip side to this game in which the participants one downed each other. Same principle, but with progressively more depressing events. I recall one game being won by my buddy Will after he had been quiet for about five minutes. We all assumed he had given up as the other two players made up slightly more awful things that had befallen them throughout the day. Finally Will softly spoke up and, staring into the middle distance, whispered, "Do you ever just go outside, dig a hole, and lay in it?"
I loved these games mostly because I knew how obnoxious it was to be one upped and also because, as someone who has been accused more than once of being cocky, it sort of kept me in check. I was reminded of this last week on a business trip with some coworkers I had never before met. Turns out, one of the guys in the group was an ex New York City cop. One night over beers, he gradually started to open up about some of the things he had seen and done on the job. Mostly, these were your run of the mill cop stories. People caught in compromising positions in compromising places, bodies found, bizarre acts witnessed, etc. The guy was a cop in NYC for 10 years. Things happen.
Every step of the way this other guy, whom I had never met, would butt in with, "That reminds me..." or "Yeah, something like that happened to me once..." If I had been listening to two veteran police officers talk shop over beers, I would have thought nothing of it and just enjoyed the ridiculousness of the stories, but this other guy had never been a cop...or a soldier...or anything more than a mediocre desk type. Still, he comported himself like Billy Badass and at one point even wanted to compare calf muscles with the ex cop (he would have lost badly).
All of this was amusing and mildly annoying until yet another coworker asked the ex officer if he had been at Ground Zero on September 11th. He had, as it turns out, and he answered questions about it in the way that I have seen combat veterans answer questions about their experiences. That attitude is sort of tough to nail down, but when you see it, you know it's not bullshit. It's not braggadocio, but it's also not out for sympathy. It is what they saw. Period.
Everyone got very quiet as he said that one of the two things in his life he will never forget was the sight and sound of bodies hitting the streets as people jumped from the towers before they collapsed.
I put my beer down as I absurdly struggled to wrap my mind around what that must have been like, but was interrupted by the one upper. "Yeah, that reminds me of..."
Everyone else at the table turned and stared at him. We must have all been thinking the same thing. That reminds you of absolutely nothing! There is nothing you have experienced that can even remotely compare to witnessing the sky rain live bodies! You ass! I can't recall wanting to punch someone so badly, and when I scanned the rest of the table, they all seemed to be thinking the same thing. Everyone, that is, except for the ex cop. He listened politely and sympathized with whatever BS story it was that the one upper related to the table. I was shocked and a little shamed as well. The ex cop had every right to interrupt the one upper and tell him where to go with his likely fictional story, and the one upper, upon completion of his story, took a drink from his beer with a self-satisfied smirk.
Maybe that's the gift of tragedy. It gives us the ability to empathize and respond with grace even though there's no reasonable expectation that we do so. I still haven't picked my jaw up off the floor.