There is a memorable line spoken by Blanche DuBois at the end of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ By the play’s end, Blanche has lost touch with reality, and willingly accompanies a kind doctor to a psychiatric hospital. She smiles at him, and then says a killer line: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
That line always gets to me, and I confess I have jokingly uttered it from time to time. In truth, however, there are moments in everyone’s life when he or she has had to rely on the kindness of strangers. Thank God for kind-hearted strangers!
Sometimes I think they are a dying breed, slowly going the way of the dinosaur.
I was thinking about this during my commute, after a driver cut me off, obviously believing he had proprietary rights to the lane we were both traveling in. Moments later, I made way for another driver who waited until the last possible moment to enter the stream of ongoing traffic. While I could have sped up and left her stranded on the shoulder of the road, I didn’t. Did she offer a wave of thanks? No, she did not. She felt entitled to pass a long string of cars, hoping to get at the front of the line of traffic and force her way into an opening that I (graciously) created for her.
Over the past several years, I’ve noticed an increasing lack of courtesy and civility amongst people. I tend to notice it most times when I’m on the road.
What is the deal with people who speed up so that others can’t enter the flow of traffic? Why, after holding you hostage for several minutes at a speed well below the posted limit, do some drivers feel compelled to speed up if they see you’re about to pass them? What happened to a simple ‘wave’ that says ‘thanks’ for extending an on-road courtesy that you didn’t have to extend? Finally, what happened to the practice of signaling one’s intention to make a turn, or the brief flash of lights to indicate that someone could proceed in front of your vehicle?
Is it really so difficult to be polite? Are we so invested in our own sense of entitlement that we can’t be civil on our crowded highways? This has to be a contributing factor in the increase in traffic accidents. My weekly drive is peppered with near-misses as well as views of accidents that have been moved onto the shoulder of the road, further snarling the rush-hour commute.
Perhaps much of the incivility on the roads can be attributed to the busy pace of our daily lives. Speaking from personal experience, my internal mantra from morning to night is ‘Go, go, go!’
Yet, I think the root of our incivility is something meaner. I think it is selfishness, the sense that ‘it’s all about me, and everyone else can pound sand.’
This lack of kindness and unwillingness to think of others is not limited to the highways. It’s everywhere. Here are two examples.
Several months ago, I was visiting Disney World, supposedly ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ – except a lot of people didn’t seem all that happy. Long lines, heat and humidity, and tired, disgruntled children were making it a challenging day for many in the Magic Kingdom. Not once, but several times, I found myself waiting in line for attractions for close to thirty minutes. Anyone who visits Disney understands this is a given, so you grin and bear it. But I was surprised that on more than one occasion, a group of fifteen to twenty people would, as we approached the ride’s entrance, suddenly join the one person standing directly in front of me. ‘Hi, we’re with her,’ they’d say, moving in front of me, extending my wait time.
Why wouldn’t you keep your party together? After experiencing this several times, I admit to getting a bit snarky. ‘Oh, excuse me… don’t let me get in your way. Did you have a nice time visiting other attractions while I stood here in line? Oh good, because, after all, it’s all about you.’ While these thoughts roiled in my brain, I managed to keep from expressing them.
On another occasion, I was having dinner with an elderly friend of mine. We were sitting in a booth, and behind us were parents with a five-year old boy. He was a cute little fellow! Until he began shrieking and pounding the wooden back of the booth with his fists. My friend, her back against the booth the little tyke was pounding, said nothing for several minutes. We figured Dad or Mom would hush the boy or lead him out of the restaurant for a brief talking-to. How wrong we were! Finally, my friend politely asked Dad if he would ask the little boy to stop pounding the booth.
Dad apparently didn’t like gray-haired ladies. He glared at my friend and said, “He’s a kid, lady! What do you expect?”
Gee, what did we expect?
The thought that someone else’s enjoyment of a night out might be compromised by an unruly child didn’t occur to Dad. Or, if it did, he didn’t care. The poor child continued to pound the booth and have tantrums while Dad and Mom ignored everything. We moved to another table.
After all, we didn’t want to diminish their joy in any way, and certainly not by requesting they act like parents and teach their child how to act in a restaurant that wasn’t Chuck E Cheese.
After all, it was all about them.
When did our relationships with each other become as casual, and in some cases as slovenly, as our attire? When did we acquire the expectation that we are all entitled to act as badly as we desire without giving thought to those around us?
Did it begin with our viewing of television shows that depict even the best of friends getting off brutal but witty insults at one another’s expense – nasty little insults that leave us guffawing? I wonder. There is certainly a lack of kindness in much of today’s humor.
Ever watch the old Andy Griffith Show? Much of the show’s humor had its basis in the human foibles of its characters, but there was a basic feeling of kindness. Instead of getting in a mean-spirited crack at the antics of his friend, Barney, an amiable blowhard, Andy often sought to mend a situation by sparing Barney’s feelings. The humor arose from the situation, not a trashing of the individual.
Perhaps some of our incivility springs from spending so much time alone, immersed in video games where we interact with avatars instead of people, and where – with casual disregard – we strive to ‘blow up’ targets that are often represented as human beings.
Or perhaps it springs from today’s lack of faith in the dignity of the ordinary person. The fellow we meet on the street, what’s he to us? After all, it’s all about ME, isn’t it?
This summer I’ve noticed a large number of movies with smart-mouth super heroes saving the world from death and destruction. Because I like old movies, I’m familiar with the films of Frank Capra, a guy who believed that the true heroes were the regular Joes all around us. The Mr. Smiths who go to Washington, the Mr. Deeds who go to town and – yes –the George Baileys who do the right thing even when it hurts. And they do it with dignity, with respect for the well-being of others, and with a quiet heroism that today’s Marvel heroes can’t come close to approaching.
And you can’t tell me we need super heroes because the ordinary heroes don’t exist. They do. Think of some of the ordinary people who cared not only about civility, but about kindness toward strangers – people like Raoul Wallenberg, an architect who rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, or Todd Beamer, a software salesman, one of the passengers who died trying to reclaim United Airlines Flight 92 from terrorists on September 11, 2001. Beamer’s last words were, ‘Let’s roll,’ before he and his companions broke into the cockpit, fought the terrorists, and were responsible for the plane plowing into an empty Pennsylvania field instead of its destination: Washington, DC.
A lot of people benefited from the kindness of Raoul Wallenberg and Todd Beamer, two ordinary men. Two kind-hearted strangers. What if they had been wise-cracking idiots? What if they had been a couple of fellows with the ‘it’s all about me’ mentality so many of us are guilty of?
Earlier, I cited several small, almost meaningless incidences of incivility, and you might wonder what any of that has to do with ordinary heroes, those strangers who walk amongst us and who do the right thing. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. As long as we continue to believe we are entitled to act like selfish children and to treat one another with a cavalier contempt, then perhaps we diminish our ability to empathize with one another’s humanity. When that happens, don’t we also diminish our capacity for heroism? If I don’t see you as at least as important as myself, then why should I go out of my way to help you?
We’ve grown cold as a society. It is all too often ‘all about me.’
Like Blanche DuBois, I do depend on the kindness of strangers – and so should you. The poet said, ‘No man is an island.’ In our casual disregard of one another, we seem to have forgotten that.
It’s time for us to remember, don’t you think?