In a world of cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods and computers it seems human contact is being handled by electronic mediators. Yet when humans choose to interact, it seems more like an explosion of pent up angst than the traditional, old-fashioned encounter.
Just the other day I was driving in downtown San Diego in rush-hour traffic. Bumper to bumper, everyone was in competition to hit the freeway first. Now remember the freeway is bumper to bumper as well, so sitting on the surface street is no different than the freeway. Yet the desire to be first was obvious to even the casual onlooker. Hundreds of Mario Andrettis were jockeying for pole position.
Changing lanes without paying close attention almost cost me my life, or at least reduced my lifespan by a few years. Without realizing it, I had cut off a young lady who promptly alerted me to my indiscretion with a strong and prolonged blast of her horn. After watching several choice hand gestures in my rear view mirror, the offended changed lanes so as to gain position to continue her displeasure with my less-than-professional driving ability.
My stress grew as I watched her passenger window descend into the door signaling me to drop my window so I could take more verbal punishment. Like a man, I dropped the window and proceeded to profusely apologize for my mistake. No words, however, provided the balm necessary to soothe her anger at this unpardonable action.
With the fury of Gen. Grant taking Richmond, I was assaulted with language I couldn't imagine most women would even know, no less use. I was told I almost caused her to die, that I had no regard for her life, that people at home loved her and she almost didn't make it because of me, that she should take my plate number down and have me killed – all this while both autos were moving at less than 10 mph. Hey, I'm serious. This actually happened. I am not making any of this up.
Feeling horrible for the pain I caused this young lady, I again offered the most heartfelt apology I could muster, and boy was that a mistake. She then flung her car door open, ran around the front of my car and screamed at me at the top of her lungs for no less than 10-15 seconds until the light was preparing to release me from her verbal assault. With arms flailing she blocked my car and then came to my door. I thought she was going to punch me.
Fortunately she ran back to her car, slammed the door, offered a few more suggestions on what I could do to myself and sped off. Only to be stopped at the next light. Suffice to say I took my time getting to the next light making sure I was a good 200 feet behind her.
What is my point?
This young lady is probably representative of the average, stressed-out person who lives in a time of the greatest level of convenience the world has ever seen. She left an air-conditioned office building to enter an air-conditioned car, which is equipped with navigation, a cell phone, a Bose audio system and every other comfort known to man.
When she gets home the amenities just get better: HDTV, a well-stocked refrigerator and high-speed Internet – everything one needs to live a life that is the envy of anyone from any time or country – plentiful fresh water and food, temperature-controlled comfort and complete safety from wild animals or foes.
So why the visceral reaction to something as simple as an honest mistake? Entitlement.
Fact is, we are so spoiled. The tiniest little thing causing even a minor disruption in our near-perfect lives sends many people into a rage. The sense of violation is at dangerous levels in America. And I would suggest it is a byproduct of a nation whose people have been given so much with so little required in return. We have become nasty and resentful to anyone or anything that isn't perfect. The allowable margin of human error has been reduced to zero.
Have you noticed how some people in America seem so miserable? Nothing is good enough anymore. They expect everyone around them to operate flawlessly, and mercy is in short supply. There's an arrogant sense that everyone else is dumb and they alone have a monopoly on brains.
Is there more than one cause of this stress? It is Bush or the media? Corrupt politicians and businessmen? Big oil and pharmaceutical companies taking advantage in the name of higher profits? I am sure many could come up with dozens of excuses for the stress level in America. They could cite anyone or anything other than the real source of stress – self. It's coupled, of course, with our inability to communicate with one another.
And the most mind boggling part of this American behavior is that it is not seen in nations that have far less than we do – countries where BlackBerries don't even get service. These people have true joy and contentment. It's something most of us haven't experienced in a long time. These people are grateful for the important things in life, things we take for granted daily because we are too busy texting. Heck, we rarely use full sentences with one another anymore.
There was a time in America when someone would have waved me over in front of them, knowing I made an honest mistake, offer a sympathetic smile and a cordial nod. Not today. Today it is dog-eat-dog, and it has infected this nation like a cancer eating away at our hearts and minds. And while most Americans are kind, there is a growing number of downright mean people who are willing to fight and even die … for what? Three feet of advancement in position on the freeway? To prove the other guy was wrong?
Maybe it is time we tear down the fences and walls that separate us from our neighbors, put the porch back on the front of the house where passersby can stop by or wave hello, talk to one other and interact on a human level and find out what is going on in another person's life to see if we can help.
I guess in simple terms – become human again.
So the next time you see a bonehead like me make a dumb traffic move, take a deep breath and consider that a bit of mercy, and grace may be in order. Know that offering a bit of kindness may bring a reward money cannot buy – a gesture that will lower your blood pressure and add years to your life.
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