The Kindness of Strangers

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.”

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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?

Angry-Driver

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.

Keep your party together!

Keep your party together!

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?”

'He's just a kid, lady!'

‘He’s just a kid, lady!’

Gee, what did we expect?

Civility?

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.

Andy117

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.

George Bailey, It's A Wonderful Life

George Bailey, It’s A Wonderful Life

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.

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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.

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It’s time for us to remember, don’t you think?

About Kate Loveton

Aspiring novelist. Avid reader of fiction. Reviewer of books. By day, my undercover identity is that of meek, mild-mannered legal assistant, Kate Loveton, working in the confines of a stuffy corporate law office; by night, however, I'm a super hero: Kate Loveton, Aspiring Novelist and Spinner of Tales. My favorite words are 'Once upon a time... ' Won't you join me on my journey as I attempt to turn a hobby into something more?
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25 Responses to The Kindness of Strangers

  1. First – great post, Kate. There’s a wonderful book called “The Kindness of Strangers” that’s at least 15 years old now, but it’s a memoir about a guy who decides that he’s going to hitchhike across the country. He sets up rules, the first being that he would accept the ride no matter who it was from – no matter how down and out they appeared and how contrary to his experience they were. It’s a beautiful story and while I haven’t read it in ages, what I do remember about it is that he didn’t have a single bad experience. In fact, people were overwhelmingly kind.

  2. Kate Loveton says:

    Hi Margaret, some good thoughts. I confess I didn’t think of cell phone use, but you are right – it is more thoughtful to take a phone to a more private location for lengthy conversations than hold everyone hostage to one’s personal conversations. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  3. Margaret Smith says:

    This is an interesting thought provoking post, and I could spend all day waging war against the people who do show any form of courtesy to others. Sad to say it is a me me world out there, and I fear it will only get worse. It has been getting worse over the last three decades Bad parenting has to take some blame for what we see by way of bad manners and lack of thought for others. Okay I know some mothers work all day as well as the fathers, to make a better life for their family, but in doing that the children get less attention. They should not…If the parents don’t guide their children down the right path of good manners what hope do we have for the future as each generation cares less and less. How sad it is to get surprised, and chuffed when someone courteously steps aside to let up go first, or helps you get something down from a shelf that is too high for you. How often does this happen these days?

    I agree with all that you covered Kate, and with your reviewers comments thus far. But for me, you missed one of the most annoying pieces of technology that people cannot seem to do without which people use that while they love them causes irritation at their lack of polite use in public places…the MOBILE/CELL PHONES which drives me personally mad. What did people do before they were invented? I agree that they have their uses for emergencies, but there is such a lack of courtesy to others out there in their use. They chat on their phones on public transport; in restaurants; while you are trying to enjoy a meal; in supermarkets blocking the aisles; or next to you as you are looking at what you want to purchase yourself; and in the streets they walk behind you, making you think someone is talking to you. Then there are those that are so engrossed with chatting on their phones they walk straight of the kerb or sidewalk right in front of your car, endangering not only their life but selfishly yours as well, because they have not bothered to look – and if they get hit, who gets the blame, the poor innocent car driver no doubt. Do I have a mobile phone, yes…but only used for emergencies.

    As I said, a thought provoking post .

  4. W. K. Tucker says:

    I agree with every single word you wrote, Kate. This is a wonderful post.
    Kathy

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Thank you, Kathy – and thank you for reblogging the post. I’m trying to make an effort to be more courteous in my dealings with people. It’s easy to forget that we’re all in this together. 🙂

  5. Kate Loveton says:

    Hi Michelle, humor has certainly taken a detour into cruelty over the past few years. If you don’t agree, you’re told to ‘get a sense of humor.’ 😀 I’m with you – I’m out of the loop on some of that.

  6. This is exactly why I can’t handle most comedy. I can’t help but put myself in the place of the person who is the butt of the joke, or even the person telling the jokes. It’s such a sickening feeling to realize that you’ve stepped over the line of teasing and actually hurt someone’s feelings in the name of being funny. I have visceral memories of those moments.

  7. Wonderful post, Kate, I completely agree with all of the points you made. Having to do a lot of commuting to and from work, I see such a lot of disrespectful and just plain dangerous driving. I don’t mind giving way to another road user, but they could at least lift their hand slightly from the steering wheel or nod their head to show their gratitude.

    The ability to ‘do unto others’ seems to be going the way of the dinosaur it seems….

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Heather, yes, the roads are full of people who take anyone wishing to pass them as a personal challenge, or they will go excessively slow and think, ‘Too bad, I’m in front and I’m in control!’ I don’t quite understand why they feel that way, but a lot of them do. 🙂

  8. Mark Baron says:

    Civility is a product of patience, and we live in a world that no longer rewards patience, nor requires it. Indeed, if anything, it punishes patience by rewarding those who demand instant gratification and ignoring those willing to wait for it.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Mark, that’s very true. It is a by-product of living in a too-busy world. It’s sad to think we can accomplish so much and yet lose the quality of human kindness. Every once in a while, if I’m in the drive-through line at Starbuck’s, and I see a disgruntled person in the car behind me, I’ll tell the clerk to put their order on my tab. I figure it might cheer them up if someone does something unexpectedly nice for them – niceness from a stranger! You never know…

  9. Agreed, we have become a nation of children ‘me, me, me. I want, I want’ and no adults to tell us to grow up and think of others. News flash you can’t always have what you want and we all have to live here so learn to share. Having worked in retail for a looooong time I am often disgusted by the lack of manners many customers display. They are rude and seem to think it’s OK to be disrespectful and not say please and thank you, because we’re just shop assistants right? not like we’re real people. Guess what you aren’t going to get anyone to bend over backwards to help you if you treat them like something you trod in. Just because I’m there to serve doesn’t mean you need to make my job miserable by being a horrible person. The amount of times customers have just shoved a shoe at me and stood staring at me. That’s their way of saying they want the other foot but they don’t speak they just throw the shoe at me, sometimes literally.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      It is a problem for those working in retail and hospitality services. I go out to eat fairly frequently, and I’m sometimes taken aback by the rudeness shown to servers. I’ve become quite friendly with some servers, and I watch them give their all – and the customer leaves a very poor tip or nothing at all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  10. Harliqueen says:

    Yes to this! I don’t understand why people can’t act nicely in public, it really has become the fact that the world has become all about them as a person, with no care for the others who have to live in the world with them! 😀

    • Kate Loveton says:

      I really think a lot of this is the by-product of the media. We’re confronted with images of people acting poorly all the time – watch some reality programming like Bridezilla, or the old Jerry Springer show. There are numerous examples of people acting poorly, and I think we’ve come to accept it – and in some quarters, applaud it. Thanks for commenting, my friend!

  11. Kate, this was another great post. You put into words what so many are thinking. I try to wave or beep when someone does something nice for me on the road – let me over into an adjacent lane, let me onto the highway from an on ramp. Just yesterday a huge semi moved over to let me on and then moved back – nice driver, he got a honk!
    The CA highways are the worst for dangerous, creepy, angry drivers.
    I once had a crazy driver in the lane next to me who kept me from getting over to exit the highway, slowing down with me, speeding up to cut me off – I missed my exit completely and finally got off two exits later, shaking with anxiety.
    The world is changing and not for the better.

  12. Linda Smith says:

    Bravo Ms. Loveton, BRAVO! I could not agree more. There is such a “it’s all about me” attitude in today’s world that the everyday heroes are often overlooked.
    You so eloquently expressed what I think many of us in the “huddled masses” are feeling. Would you mind if I share this on my Facebook page? Linda

  13. naomiharvey says:

    I have always been horrified with ‘gawkers’ at traffic accidents etc. My father was a Fire Fighter and i think i got the disgust from him. He hated it when people slowed down to have a good old look at a car accident saying it was disrespectful to the people involved and their families.

    Last year there was a massive crash on the motorway near where i work. Hundreds of people were caught on camera using their mobiles to film the emergency crews doing their jobs and trying to save lives. They were so disappointed with the behavior of passers by that the police got hold of the footage from security cameras and news film crews in the area and used it to prosecute drivers for using their phones to film what was happening, or calling people to gossip about it, whilst behind the wheel.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Naomi! I wonder in the daily reporting of disasters on TV has made us callous – have we forgotten these are people just like ourselves who are hurting, injured – and not just images on a TV screen? Has this resulted in a voyeur-like and morbid curiosity?

  14. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks true and thoughtful. Regards thom

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