Saturday, May 12, 2007

Making the World a Bitter Place

Some days are harder than others.

That's anything but a profound statement, I know. I mean, isn't true for all of us? Aren't we all struggling in our own, little ways? Aren't we all surrounded by such an array of negative energy that, some days, it seems nearly impossible to continue on?

This isn't just the move talking. This isn't just the bathroom lock-in or the slow traffic or the middle fingers or the blank, speechless stares by office-workers when I offer a polite "hello!" in the hallway. This isn't even the years of bad luck culminating in a single diatribe.

Rather, it's all of these things. And the dozens of other things that happen that are just too unspeakable to even post on these pages. It's the accumulation of things that seem reasonable enough in small doses, but that slowly choke us over time — that is, the air that scarcely clears before the next sprinkle of foul weather.

And so I say: some days are easier than others. That's not to say things necessarily improve on those days, but that I'm sufficiently distracted to not think about the way I'm treated on the roadways, in the office, at home, etc. Maybe I've had a day or two without incident. Maybe the endorphins are hitting just right at the gym, or I'm out of the city for a weekend.

But whatever it is, those days — those moments of contentment — have been increasingly difficult to come by over the past couple years.

Maybe it's the city. Maybe it's the situation. Or maybe it's just me.

Only time will tell.

I read once that people are wired to exist in communities of no more than 200 people. A friend offered an eloquent reminder me of this in a recent post that really got me thinking not only about city-life, but how our wiring impacts the way we treat others — particularly, those who aren't a part of our troop.

Do you remember the first time you ran into a teacher at a grocery store? The first time you saw them in jeans, or caught them holding hands with their significant other? Do you remember the first time you saw your doctor at the movie theatre, or the first time you realized you weren't a "test tube" baby?

It is difficult, at times, for us to see people outside of the roles we have assigned to them. It is difficult for us, as growing children, to realize that our parents aren't just providers, but that they, too, once upon a time had these living, breathing dreams.

It is exponentially difficult for us to imagine the utility of strangers. Or even more so, it is difficult for us to imagine — or, at least, easier for us to not imagine — them laughing and smiling and crying and starving and breathing and living and dying.

We have enough to worry about, after all. Our bills are due Tuesday, the bread is stale and dammit-didn't-I-clean-the-clogged-pipe-just-last-week?

This changes, of course, when we lump these "strangers" into other communities (i.e. slapping a single face onto hundreds of thousands of people). We'll rally together for causes — for hordes of people suffering from any variety of maladies — but we fail, even still, to genuinely care about the individual.

And by that I mean: we fail, religiously, to treat others with a modicum of respect. We fail to recognize the humanness of those around us: do you ever stop to think, for example, about the woman at the grocery store checkout? Do you ever look up at those skyscrapers as you drive past, and marvel at the thousands of lives — the millions of stories — that are unfolding within those walls?

Do you ever stop to think that the person you tailgate on the highway might be on the way back from the hospital — or on their way to picking up their kid from school — or battling a terrible, life-altering illness and your thoughtlessness is somehow impacting their day (their life) in what only seems to you to be a microscopic way?

You don't know these people. You don't know who they are, or what their situation is.

But you may very well be pushing them over a rather steep ledge.

Or is that not what road rage is about? The thoughtlessness of two strangers who insist that they were wronged by the other.

But in a world where everyone is right, no one is.
We've come to expect this treatment from other people: that's precisely how we justify it when we turn around and do the same unto others — right?

But what of those times when this thoughtlessness infects our very community? Those times when the cold stares and the lack of consideration and the me-first mentalities inhabit our walls like termites thirsty for the soul?

We have nowhere to turn for solace. Living becomes intolerable. So much so, in fact, that some people simply... give up. That's not to necessarily say they make a vertical incision along their wrists, but that — if nothing else — they, too, stop trying.

They become hapless, inconsiderate drones. Just like everyone else.

If Thoreau got one thing right, it's this: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

I challenge you to people-watch at a mall — or a busy intersection, or a bar — and to not come to that same disheartening conclusion, time and time again.

That's not to say there isn't beauty in life — there is — but that we're too often immune to it.

Or, even worse, we want it strictly for ourselves. Or if we're feeling generous: our community.

So the next time you volunteer, or the next time you drop a one-spot into the fireman's boot (both of which I encourage you to do, by the way), don't think for a second that your good deed for the year is done.

There are thousands of people out there relying on you to make their day a little less miserable. Some of them you know. Some of them you don't.

But a fair number of them, I'd wager, could really benefit from some kindness.


Pamela said...

A very thought provoking and well written post....

If you just made us think even 10% of the time more about other people's feelings you made an impact.

Anonymous said...

There have been a few times where someone did something completely selfish in traffic and just as I was about to go ballistic a thought in the back of my head said "You don't know their story."

Just about everyone is simply trying to just get through their day. They have the boss that is an ogre/tyrant/idiot. They have the SO that just doesn't understand (or don't have an SO at all). They have the hundreds of small things that add up to a stomach full of acid and a temper so short it can only be seen with an electron microscope. They don't know you. Right now they don't WANT to know you. When they do the things that make us nuts, they aren't being malicious, they just aren't thinking. Does it make it right? No, but it makes it understandable.

It never ceases to amaze me how nice people can be if you do a small thing for them. Next time you see someone with their hands full trying to get into something, hold the door for them. They usually get a really relieved look on their face and say a genuine "Thank you". Next time you are in the super market and you see a kid do something obnoxious but cute (yes, it can happen) smile a knowing smile at the poor parent who has to deal with the little monster. It is usually returned.

Everybody has a story to tell. That is why blogs exist. Next time some jerk cuts you off in traffic, imagine his wife screamed at him as he was leaving the house this morning. He may have just made your life a little more difficult, but he lives in the sixth ring of hell. You only have to deal with him for a few seconds. He has to be him his whole life.

Failing all that, work out harder. Endorphins are your friend. :)

Stacy said...

This is really, really good. A few weeks ago I was driving through a pot- hole laden,narrow, bank drive- through window; it was a one way. This Joker with a kid in the car came flying around the corner headed the wrong way , nearly causing a head on collision, and then he proceeded to scream at me at the top of his voice for driving too fast! I almost got out and choked him, but I was too furious and my legs were shaking and, Sheeze, I still am.

Academic Advisor said...

I live in a college town. I think it's a generally accepted truth that teenagers, and by extension college undergraduates, are the most self-centered and wantonly destructive people alive. Always have been, probably always will be. Everything bad that happens to them or because of them is someone else's fault, and despite their Greek-society-mandated philanthropy and constant lip-service to the contrary, they just don't care. Sometimes their harmful acts are intentional, but more often than not, they just don't pay attention to anybody or anything. And they don't think they should have to.

I get so angry at them sometimes, and my impulse is to maim first and ask questions later. I think, "I'm going to teach this one a lesson!" But, as is often the case, ThirdWorst, you have accurately summed up my more sober thoughts and feelings. It's pretty hypocritical to want others to acknowledge us when we refuse to see them as anything other than masses of mindless or inconsiderate flesh that is in our way.

So, after that first flash of self-righteous fury, I try to remember that they are people and I don't know what lies at the heart of their seemingly selfish acts. I also try to get beyond my natural disinclination to engage with strangers in order to be kind to check-out clerks and custodial staff. Personally, I prefer to just take care of business silently and efficiently, but I know their jobs must be awfully boring at times. Maybe a 30-second conversation and a smile makes their day go by a little easier.

I don't expect thank yous in return for these acts. If I did, I would surely end up more sad and annoyed when I don't receive them. I just try to keep in mind that though I can't really change the world, regardless of the e-mail circulars and bumper stickers that claim otherwise, I don't have to be part of the problem. I am only responsible for my own actions, and I'd like to be able to say I am proud of them.

I don't always succeed in being this nobly minded, but I do try.

michele said...

Beautiful post. As usual, you've made me think... and maybe generated fodder for my own blog post! :-)

Thanks for reminding us that everybody's got a story... and some would break your heart if you knew about them.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Thanks, Pamela. If I could help anyone avoid (or minimize) the stress I've been dealing with day after day, then all my agony is worth it. :)

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

BPP - I'm not working out until after I finish unpacking.

I better finish soon, though, because my outlook hasn't exactly been peachy. The lack of sleep doesn't help.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Stacy - I hear you. Sometimes just thinking about what transpires on my daily commute stirs up the frustration all over again.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

AcAd - I don't even consider them to be kind "acts," per se. Just me trying to not spread the hate. Even when I detect its faint beginnings, festering in the pit of my stomach.

Still, glad to hear you've sufficiently contained your anger in regards to the college traffic. Whatever the situation or the location, "traffic" has a funny way of growing one's blood pressure.

thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

Michele - Oddly enough, the fodder for this post started with your blog. Still, look forward to reading whatever may result.