Rich Cozzola

A couple of weeks back, we gathered to honor Rich Cozzola, a longtime friend who died much too young. We grew up two blocks away from each other in Oak Park. He lived one block east of Ridgeland and I lived one block west of Ridgeland, near Longfellow Park.

As life went on, through high school, college and beyond, I admired him more and more. Most of us aspire to find our true calling in life. Rich didn’t just hear one call. He heard three. He spent nine years in the seminary and didn’t become a priest, but clearly heard the call of service. He also heard a call to creativity and over the years became a fine singer-songwriter, his compositions imbued with wit, depth and insight. And he heard the call to social justice, becoming a legal aid and public guardian attorney, providing representation to the voiceless and disenfranchised.

He married and had a family and career without compromising his three callings: service, creativity and advocacy. He blended them and lived a balanced life anyone would be proud to live.

I thought of Rich last week as I tried to avoid the assholes on the Eisenhower Expressway. You know, the ones who think they’re starring in a Fast and Furious flick (they’re fast, we’re furious), the ones driving 80-90 mph, weaving through traffic like their lives depended on it — and making our lives dependent on their daredevilry.

The contrast with my departed friend could not be sharper. Rich Cozzola was their polar opposite.

Acting like a jerk is being thoughtlessly inconsiderate. At times, we may or may not have understandable reasons for being too self-absorbed or distracted to consider our fellow human beings. I’m guilty of it in my more clueless moments. Maybe you are too. But like you, when I become aware of it, I regret the act, apologize and try to do better in the future.

I doubt that Rich Cozzola suffered many of those lapses. He considered other people first. It came naturally. It was his defining characteristic.

There’s a big difference, of course, between acting like a jerk once in a while and consistently being a jerk. Being a jerk means indifferently inconsiderate. A jerk shrugs it off, makes excuses or blames someone else and doesn’t take responsibility for his behavior.

An asshole, on the other hand, is what I call an iJerk, an “irredeemable jerk” — Donald Trump has set the standard, raising asshole to the level of archetype, i.e. recklessly and intentionally inconsiderate.

I don’t know what motivates the expressway iJerks, but they are most likely extreme individualists who act like they don’t give a damn about the common good, the kind who absolutely hate when other people try to tell them what to do. In other words, socially irresponsible. Rules, they seem to think, only apply to chumps and sheep. The iJerk’s code of ethics is seemingly limited to getting away with as much as society will allow.

Some may back off if they fear the consequences, but the highway iJerks must have decided there won’t be any consequences. I’m guessing Trump and other rich tax cheats are their role models because no one holds them accountable. Until society starts sending a message that the rich and powerful will be held to account for anti-social behavior, the iJerks will feel free to get away with, in some cases, murder.

Expressways are an apt metaphor for our society. We are a culture of individualists, traveling alone, for the most part, in our vehicles. But society only works when consideration is shown for the other individuals around us. Some lean more toward individualism, others more toward the common good. Rules are necessary to prevent our freeways from turning into a free-for-all. Most drivers respect those rules, though we’re flexible about following them. Hardly anyone, for instance, strictly adheres to the speed limit.

Extreme individualists, however, mess things up because they cause accidents that wreak havoc on the orderly flow of traffic. They rebel against the rules, opting for chaos.

The reason Republicans are so bad at governing is that they have become the party of extreme individualism. That’s why our roads suck. Fixing them costs money and that would raise their taxes, so they oppose almost all government action. Wrecked roads and reckless drivers undermine the smooth functioning of our expressway society.

Everything works much more efficiently when roads get fixed and citizens show respect for the rules of the road — and also when those who demonstrate blatant disrespect for those rules are held to account. If we don’t hold them accountable, we send the wrong message. The next thing you know, they’re storming the Capitol or trying to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

It would help greatly if citizens would stop voting for representatives who act like jerks, making laws to restrict the rights of the vulnerable, as state legislators have been doing in red-state legislatures lately, often in the name of Jesus Christ.

John Pavlovitz, a former evangelical Christian pastor, recently authored a book that should be required reading for all who claim to be practicing Christians. Not all Christians are jerks, of course, but too many evangelical Christians and Catholics have been voting for candidates who espouse jerk politics.

The book is titled, If God is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk.

“As a longtime Christian by aspiration, if not always in practice,” Pavlovitz writes, “I often envision an exasperated Jesus coming back and the first words out of his mouth to his followers as his feet hit the pavement being, ‘You had one job: Love. So what happened?’ I wonder what massive wave of excuses and rationalizations would come flooding from the mouths of the faithful multitude in front of him, how they might justify their mistreatment of the assailed humanity in their care, the verbal and theological gymnastics they’d attempt to avoid culpability for their own cruelty. Would they stridently recite him a verse from Leviticus? Would they blame the Liberal Media for morally corrupting America? Would they talk about people’s wicked lifestyle choices? Would they argue they were loving the sinners in their midst but simply hating their sin? … And there, fully seen in the piercing gaze of the namesake of their very faith tradition, with all their justifications and excuses exhausted and only their fully exposed hearts left — would any of their responses be sufficient reasons for refusing to love, when that was the singular task and primary commandment that he left them responsible for tending to?”

The subtitle of the book, by the way, is “Finding a Faith that Makes Us Better Humans.”

Extreme individualists do not make better humans. They definitely make lousy politicians. And they certainly do not make Christianity a better religion.

Rich Cozzola is my model of a better, more balanced, human (and Christian). His departure leaves a hole in our already frayed fabric. Rich knew that God is love, so he was never a jerk. He advocated for the vulnerable and considered others first.

It always hurts to live without those who worked so hard to show us how.

Rich would have been extraordinary regardless, but he stood out all the more because too many have lowered the bar for “normal.”

He lived his true calling — to strive always to be a better human being.

The rest of us can, too.

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