I was driving 70mph on the freeway, which is about as far as I’m willing to push the 65 posted limit, when a young woman swerved around me in a red sport car, flashing her one finger salute and mouthing the F-word in passing. Even though I was not in the outside fast lane, she felt perfectly justified in venting her road rage on me. I confess that her rude, arrogant behavior in turn caused me to have a few fantasies, ranging from her being led off in handcuffs by the Highway Patrol to having her car plastered against the concrete divider. As I drove further, the soothing strains of Vivaldi on the radio helped to cool my anger, and allowed me to realize that the level of my outrage at her behavior was not much better than hers.
In the home in which I grew up, certain rules of behavior were never in question. It was assumed that you were concerned about other people’s feelings, ready to offer aid and comfort if needed, and contemptuous of those who cavalierly slighted others. “Always,” admonished my mother, “ask how you would feel and want to be treated if you were in the other person’s shoes.” My parents, raised in the Old World, immigrants to this country, fervently believed that the world was divided between people who were brought up properly to care about others and people who were not, between the kind and the petty, between us and them. My mother was incapable of walking by a woman struggling with grocery bags without offering to help. My father could not walk through a door without opening it for the other person first. If one is to lay any claim to character, he must live his convictions daily, reflexively. I once stopped dating a woman because I saw the way she treated waiters in a restaurant and those subordinate to her at her work. Someone without respect for the people around her will eventually be found wanting with regards to the other major issues of life.
It should not be that difficult to show respect for others, nor does it require that much more energy to be thoughtful than thoughtless. Somehow, it seems that fewer and fewer of us are able to manage it. There was a time, not that distant in my memory, when certain elementary rules of human relationships were enforced by popular assent, and ignoring them labeled you as a lout, unfit for social discourse. When I was in high school, no one with gray hair or carrying a small child would have been left standing on a crowded bus or subway. Today’s public transportation is filled with elderly standees, with hoards of young people in designer clothes staring blankly through them. We have become a society where lack of consideration is the norm, where looking out only for number one is not only accepted, but applauded.
It seems that the more uncaring our actions have become, the more our speech is dissonant with our behavior. Every clerk wishes you to “have a nice day.” Every electronic phone message putting us on interminable hold reminds us “your call is important to us.” Every customer service representative, regardless of how little he is actually prepared to help us, reminds us of how “sorry we are for your inconvenience.” It seems that the reduction to ad copy of human feelings has made us less capable of actually responding as human beings to someone’s needs. Bombarded incessantly with platitudes, we don’t listen so well, see so clearly, and ultimately, feel so deeply.
The picture of the social landscape grows grimmer with time, and there is little indication it will soon change. We are ultimately left to the dictates of our own conscience whether we will reach out and touch someone (as the phone advertisement prompts us to do) or simply continue looking the other way. Making the choice to do the right thing is the only way we can hope to improve our world, and dispel the growing cynicism creeping over our land.
My family and I were driving home from a week’s vacation in the Smoky Mountains. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, and I was on the Interstate going through St. Louis when the clutch pedal of our car sheared off, falling literally down on the floor of the car as I was shifting down into 2nd gear. I was fortunate enough to be next to an off ramp when this occurred, and was able to roll the car into a gas station just opposite the exit lane. The mechanic, who was just getting ready to go home for the day, surveyed the damage, as well as our old car and the look of desperation on our face. He phoned a friend of his at home, persuaded him to stop watching the ball game, and come down to the station with his welding equipment. While his friend fixed our broken clutch pedal, and in between serving customers, he asked us about our life in the States, about what things were like in Hungary under the Communists, and told us about his own family, of his memories as a soldier stationed in Europe. In about two hours, the job was done. Fearing a large bill we were ill prepared to pay, we asked what we owed him. Looking at us once more, he thought for a second, and said, “Ten dollars.” Amazed, we protested that he was being unfair to himself and his friend. He reassured us that his friend owed him many favors, and he felt adequately compensated. I still remember his smile as he said, “Have a safe trip home. And welcome to America!” I know I will remember this man’s smile long after the unpleasantness of the rude young woman’s gesture has left me.