Waiting in line at a mall food court for her food to be ready, a 40-something woman turned to a senior citizen behind her.
“What did you do that for?” the woman snapped. “That’s a waste.”
The older person’s crime? Ordering a bottle of water.
Behind the counter, the cashier wore an 1,000-yard stare that suggested she had spent her shift dealing with more than one person just like the woman.
As we descend into December and stresses amplify, we’re bound to see more and more people acting like this. It’s a visegrip of a season we’re in. We have deadlines to meet, gifts to buy, lights to hang, holiday parties to attend. We have our usual nonseasonal obligations. And, on top of it all, we have a fresh dose of angst thanks to the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent fear of new attacks in Europe and the U.S.
It’s easy to go into lockdown with so much going on. It’s natural. We’re programmed to act that way.
Still, I can’t help to wonder how we got here, to the point where disagreement or difference is an unforgivable sin, where the desire to be right trumps the need to be human, where what’s mine is mine and no one else’s. During an interview with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley suggested the atmosphere in Washington had shifted over the years, and a disagreeing person went from being “a good guy with a bad idea” to being “a bad guy.” Ryan agreed with Pelley, and I’d argue this “good guy-bad guy” brand of simplistic thinking is everywhere, not just D.C.
So, this month, I propose we push back, in the nicest way possible. Let’s do more than change our Facebook profile picture, and think we’ve made a difference. (I’m guilty here, by the way.) In December, try to do one positive thing a day, something you wouldn’t normally do. Consider more than your gut reaction to an idea you don’t like. Go the entire commute without complaining about someone else’s driving. Throw out the Pop Tart box when you eat the last package.
That’s it—just one simple thing. After that, you can do as many terrible things as you want. You’ve met your quota.
The idea is to allow ourselves accept the possibility that among bitterness and hopelessness in the world, there’s a chance we can reconnect with what’s good. That by doing good instead of focusing on bad, we’ll feel better about ourselves. More secure, more open.
And in that world full of more open, secure people, senior citizens will be able to buy bottles of water without fear of beratement. It’s wondrous, isn’t it?
In May 2005, writer David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College. The speech, later adapted into an essay entitled “This Is Water,” masterfully tackles the importance of challenging our inclinations and routines.
Midway through the speech, Wallace discusses our innate tendency to consider only how a situation affects us, to believe other people are merely obstacles and inconveniences.
“Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line,” he wrote. “Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
The quote is a bit, um, Wallacian. It’s also a bit cliché—just like this column. But there’s something to the point, isn’t there?
So, when you venture out this month, don’t steel yourself against reality. Accept it. Consider it. And be good to each other.
Because each other is really all we have.
Connect with Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes on Twitter, @robanthes.