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The Death of Civility

It was the end of an “embrace the suck” kind of day. I blew a gasket at our house painter, who had worked my last nerve after four weeks, breaking a window, destroying part of the lawn and splattering more paint on the glass and deck than to the exterior of the house. I’d heard a million excuses, but not one “I’m sorry.”

Riding the train into New York after my unexpected tirade, I landed in a car with two middle school-aged Justin Beiber clones screaming at cell phone video games. And I mean screaming. Their babysitter gazed on with mild amusement.

All around me, other weary passengers were trundling into the city for 100 different reasons. Two rows of day laborers, covered in dry wall dust, were no doubt headed home after working in 85 degree heat. The train is a great place to recharge your batteries. Unless people are screaming.

I finally popped my head over the seat and shot the sitter an exasperated look. She glanced up, surprised, and half-heartedly admonished them. They continued screaming.

Right about now you’re imagining me with pink foam curlers and a cane, working my support hose up over my varicose veins. I sound like a grumpy grandma, and maybe that’s what I’m becoming. But I’m worried.

All around us, in every corner of American life, we’re witnessing the death of civility. It’s a cocky sense of entitlement, a tone-deafness to rude behavior that has been growing in strength like a tumor. The current political landscape, more slinging mud than talking solutions, feels like another tentacle wrapping itself around our collective conscious, cutting off the blood supply of decency.

But here’s the thing. When you cease being able to stand in someone else’s shoes, you lose the ability to feel compassion. And that’s where it gets a little dicey as a culture.

We’re all weary of hearing about the “me” generation millennials, snow plow parents, and how social media is creating entitled, self-absorbed, narcissists. Oh, and haters. But if we all just sit around and expect someone else to take matters into their own hands, isn’t that how Hitler moved from a small beer hall to exterminating parts of the human race?

Right about now, you’re imagining me in a girl scout uniform, selling World Peace and Thin Mints door to door. You’re nodding. Maybe you’ve even stopped reading.

But what if each of us decided to do something about it, took some tiny action, like a citizen’s-arrest-for-good kind of thing? The next leg of my “embrace the suck” day was about to hand me an opportunity.

I exited the train with the two entitled suburban screamers and hit the subway at rush hour, flooding my senses with cheap cologne and body odor. A trio of summer interns chomped gum and flipped their hair, talking at the top of their lungs about their “a-hole” boss as they stared at their phones. Every sentence ended in a question. Thank you Kardashians.

At the next stop, an elderly Hispanic man with a limp and a cane carefully worked his way into the subway car. The seat next to me was miraculously empty, so I placed my hand down to save it, gesturing for him to sit. He looked tentatively at the man standing in his way, and shrugged his shoulders in a “too much effort” gesture.

When I politely asked the man if he would move for the older gentleman, he shot me a disgusted look as if I had just shat on his Tom’s shoes (the ones that you buy so an underprivileged child gets a pair.) I kept staring until he yielded with a disgusted grunt. Small victory.

The older man lowered himself slowly. He was in obvious pain, his arms covered with bruises and welts. Somewhere within him, he had a story; maybe he was a war veteran, or had been a fireman or poet. Perhaps he was battling a disease while putting his grandkids through college. Each one of has a story, if we cared to listen, which is why it’s even more important to lead with kindness. Or at least try.

“You OK?” I asked loudly enough for the offender to hear. “I can’t believe that guy didn’t want to move.”

“Happens all the time,” he said without rancor. “Yesterday, I was walking down the subway stairs and two kids yelled at me to get out of the way.” He shook his head in disbelief, accepting it.

“When I was a kid, I used to get the strap if I was disrespectful,” he said gravely. I thought about the kids on the train. Going a little knucklehead nuts with a bullwhip might have done the trick.

“Maybe we just ought to carry around our own personal straps,” I joked. “Rambo style.” And we both shared a laugh. We felt lighter.

My twins will leave the nest in two years. I think I’ve done a decent job of trying to make all four of my children aware of their fellow humans, conscious that they are fortunate people who have more than enough. I’m confident that they understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

Some of my most important and trying times as a mother have been travelling with my children. There is no greater hell than being trapped in an airplane seat with newly walking twins and no Benedryl.

But those experiences together on planes, trains and automobiles were giant lessons in factoring in your fellow man. Every horrific transportation moment was also a chance to reinforce the basic rules of civility.

This planet is only getting more crowded. As far as I can tell, they aren’t manufacturing any more land (other than islands off China) so we’d better get a handle on this co-existence thing before we go all “Hunger Games.”

CivilityWhat if everyone woke up tomorrow and did one nice thing? Give an older person your seat or pick up a piece of trash you didn’t create. Say hello to a stranger, hold the elevator with a smile, help someone with their bags.

If we don’t start small, how will we ever start at all? And who knows, maybe we really can make America great again. Without the yelling and the shaming. But it has to begin with the basics. All that stuff we were supposed to learn in kindergarten.

12 Comments

  1. Debbie Grell

    June 21, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    Amen.

  2. karen keating

    June 21, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    Love this. when we were in nyc a couple weeks ago. as we were exiting the subway we were going up the steps as an older woman was gingerly coming down the steps. she was looking down and as we came up the steps i smiled and said hello. at that moment her faced beamed and she said thank you, you made my day. that made my day and helped me realize that these should not be fleeting moments. thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. R. Honey

    June 21, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    For years we have had Public service MESSAGES about Reading to our kIds. Maybe we need one for civility. I think if these rude individuals saw themselves on tape they would feel EMBARRASSED.
    Of course it doesnt help that a predidential nominee uses rude nicknames for people .
    If third graders called each ofher these name s on the playground and a teacher heard it would be off to being suspenDed at the principaks office!

  4. Valarie Leishman

    June 21, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    A great reminder that we can not tolerate THE further disintgration of society. Thanks for saying it so succinctly and with humour. Val

  5. Carolyn N.

    June 21, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    I love it when you write what I am thinking!! Thanks Lee.

  6. ANN McCooey

    June 21, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    I felt as though I was on the train and the subway with you. I echo your hopes of wishing for small moments of kindness. People often seem shocked if I ask them to go ahead of me in a grocery store, seeing that they have three items!!

    People never seem to wave a thank-you if you let someone into a line of cars…… they drive a certain kind of car ….they are owed it!!!

    I hope that any small measure of THOUGHTFULNESS will somehow be passed onto the next peson, rather than it stopping with one car, hoping that they do not slam their horn on at the nest person who foolishly thought they might be allowed into the merging line!!!

    Just as an aside, if you need the name of a great person who will not spill the paint, leave a mess, or break things… I have a great person to pass onto you. Mum has used him for 30 years.

    sending you hugs

    PS sorry…… i can’t seem to get this off caps!!!

  7. Judy Croughan

    June 21, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Just look at our current political race to see an example of a lack of civility. It is evident from the top down.

    I see it while driving all the time. Like you, I think I have done the best job possible with my children, but i don’t know if that is enough to combat the environment that surrounds them.

  8. Margie Quinlivan

    June 21, 2016 at 10:21 pm

    This is beautiful. i so agree with you. as i approach my 60th (;-() birthday i am awestruck on how mean everyone is to one another. I grew up on a farm in iowa and everyone was always to help. thank you lee woodruff.

  9. M. B.

    June 22, 2016 at 7:34 am

    i learned what you learned in kindergarten. it seems that kindergarten has changed since then, eliminating the basics for living. maybe kindergarten doesn’t exist anymore. and if the truth be told, perhaps “how to live with others”, a life skills class, needs to be included as a requirement for graduation.

  10. Glenda

    June 23, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Great post.

  11. JJ Shaughnessy

    June 24, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    Ugh, I read this with a heavy heart, Lee. I apologize for the all caps here, it’s not on caps Lock so not sure what’s UP with that.

    But the heavy heart is because I know it’s all true. YOU and I are from a part of the country where acts of kindness and basic civility still seem at least somewhat part of the natural order, but that may be changing too. I like the idea of STARTING small, but it’s Daunting, and a bit shocking too, to realize that the number of folks PRACTicing casual incivility, on the regular, is so high that millions of them were together able to nominate a PRESIDENTIAL candidate who not only validates their speech and behavior, but appears to encourage it in them and others as well.

    I like the idea of starting small, acting locally, but tackling it from both ends, a diverse “Pay It Forward”-type grassroots campaign (but with a different name!), that could gain enough steam to attract celebrity and other civic leader attention would be ideal. The tricky part is how to do it without sounding preachy, and I thought your essay did that very well.

    ACtuALLY, My only objection was about something else. Although I KNOW you were joking IN response to the man who appeared to wonder if children getting THE WHIP was the primary solution, It was a bit out of place in an essay about civility. The data is overwhelming that routine and/or severe corporal punishment against children who are already routinely OPPOSITIONAL is no solution at all, and sometimes part of the problem. While it may induce temporary and superficial compliance, the bad attitude often goes underground and the insidious effects later have been, and are still, disastrous for some segments of our society. Millions of children with significant behavioral disturbances are still getting the whip, in private residences, so that part hasn’t changed, NOR DID it stop incivility from advancing. there are more effective and more civil ways for parents and other adults to command and ensure the respect that we deserve from our children, and not just temporarily and superficially.

    I DON”T HAVE Any easy ANSWERS, BUT OBVIOUSLY IT somehow STARTS WITH HOW WE ADULTS TREAT EACH OTHER, SINCE CHILDREN USUALLY FOLLOW WHAT WE ACTUALLY DO, much MORE THaN WHAT WE SAY WE WANT THEM TO DO. SOLuTIONS will be very gradual and very complex and will necessitate humility in sorting out how things got this bad in the first place. In the meantime, having the courage to stand up to incivility we all see every day, as you advocate for, IS crucial, along with your plea for being proactive and countering those behaviors with our own kindness and good deeds. Thanks for the PEP talk!!

    SHAG

  12. Carol Calnero

    August 26, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    Hi Lee, Great Article on the death of civility… will Share it! Carl and I saw your article in the Colgate scene and looked up your blog. Hello to you and bob! Sincerely, carol calnero

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