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.”
What 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.