Casual Unkindness

This beautiful, poignant, inspiring blog post came across my twitter feed earlier tonight. I read it, cried, and then shared it. Apparently that wasn’t enough, because now I’m writing about it, too.

It’s just so relevant. Not only to my life, but to everyone’s life. If there’s one thing that’s badly lacking in the world, it is kindness, simple and unselfish. It’s like we all live with a thin layer of anger running right below our skin and the slightest pressure brings it forth in the shape of raised middle fingers, scornful words or hateful looks. Jostled by a woman in the grocery store? Bitch. Stuck behind a guy going only 8 miles over the speed limit instead of 10 or more? Asshole. We make fun of strangers we find unattractive, assume that our own needs and problems are the most important at all times.

I am guilty of all these things. I try to be a kind person but I don’t always succeed. I’m a vehicular hypocrite, cursing out equally people who drive too slowly or two fast. I’m not much given to obscene gestures, but I made a comment to the woman who left her grocery cart in the parking space next to her instead of returning it to the corral ten feet away. I didn’t hear what she said back to me, but in retrospect, I’m ashamed. I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t know what kind of day she was having. Maybe she was a thoughtless jerk, but maybe she was having the kind of day where walking even 10 more feet is just 10 feet too far. I’ve had that day. I think we’ve all had that day. It’s strange how no matter how often we experience unkindness from others, it’s still so hard to offer it ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder if reality TV has played a role in the upswing of vocal judgement from strangers, or if it’s a reflection of society’s changing ideas about courtesy and privacy. It’s a chicken-and-egg question, whether society got tired of scripted stories and started creating judgement-as-entertainment (because that’s largely what reality TV is, in my opinion) or if some evil genius at MTV woke up one day with this novel idea that appeals to the baser nature in all of us. I don’t think enjoying reality TV automatically makes one a bad person, but I do think it appeals to a much more banal side of human nature than conventional storytelling. The Real Housewives shows are a good example of this – they create envy in the audience (for leisure and wealth), the women are deliberately made caricatures in order that the audience might react more strongly and be scandalized, outraged or disgusted with their behavior, but all in that schadenfreude way that makes a person feel smugly superior (Well! I may not have all that money but at LEAST I have some class!). Gossip and scandal are social pillars as old as time, so anything rich in both makes for excellent water-cooler talk (Did you SEE what she was WEARING?) and because these people are “on TV”, it is acceptable to mock and degrade them. It’s really a moot point by now whether these shows encourage us to behave increasingly badly or our increasingly bad behavior gives rise to shows that celebrate it.

In recent years, social media has stripped a layer of privacy and courtesy away from everyday life. People tweet, text and status-update information that in another age would be shared only in person, and only to family and close friends. With so much communication in text it has become all too easy to share personal comments far beyond their intended audience, one click of the ‘forward’ button and an embarrassing story told between friends makes someone the butt of jokes by millions. The internet gives a measure of anonymity to such behavior, and people say things in text that they would never say to someone’s face. This post by blogger Shawna James Ahern addresses that issue with great eloquence, and this one, by John Scalzi has interesting things to say about how gender factors in.

A lot of people -myself included- spend a certain amount of time lamenting the way it used to be. We have a longing for kinder, gentler, simpler times, but in retrospect I think we’re all just longing for ideals. There is no period in history that we can point to and say “There! THAT’S when they did it right!”. So many of our nostalgic notions are based on fiction, but they’ve become such a part of us that we no longer remember that no matter how far back you go, you’ll still find people hating their neighbors and condemning their fellow man for all manner of offenses, both real and imagined. Maybe road rage was pretty common on all those roads that led to Rome. Maybe we just feel more persecuted now because we’re so much more connected, angry words can find us anywhere these days.

If I take anything away from these blog entries and my thoughts about them, it is a sense of resolution. I will be kinder. I will be more patient. I will not rise to the bait and bitch out irritating strangers, because irritating strangers are just people we don’t know yet, doing what they do for reasons known only to themselves. Maybe they’re jerks…or maybe I am.

Maybe we’re all just having a hard day.

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