Basic Human Decency and Civility
One day last week, my young friend George was pacing around the gym in an agitated state. Finally, he circled to me and told me a story. George had been waiting in line to enter the gym behind a middle-aged man, and behind the middle-aged man was a child who seemed to be on her own. Oblivious of his surroundings, the middle-aged man pushed aggressively through the outside door, letting it slam in the child's face. He did the same as he entered through the second door. At this particular gym, and for that matter most places where I have been in New Jersey, the patrons are generally very polite, often holding the door for each other, so his lack of decorum was noticeable. After slamming through two doors, the impatient man hoisted his gym bag to the check-in counter and began searching for his identification card. As the line behind him grew, the patrons began to get restless. Finally, a second person came to check people in and George was able to proceed to the front of the line – as he did so, he gave a disapproving look to the man who was still rummaging through his bag. "What are you looking at?" the man snapped. "Nothing. I just thought that it would be nice if you were aware of the child who was behind you in line," said George.
"Why don't you get on your horse and go back to wherever you came from?" the man said in an aggressive and threatening way. At this point, the staff of the gym interceded and tried to diffuse the situation. The middle-aged man followed George into the locker room, continuing his threatening rhetoric. Patrons in the locker room convinced George to forget about it and move on, which he did, although he was clearly agitated and upset.
This story highlights two important questions.
What do you do as an onlooker when you see something that crosses the line of basic human decency?
How do you respond if someone is rude or outright mean to you?
When you see injustice, you can do as George did and stand up for the young girl. Or you can do as Mrs. Caldwell did when she was a mother of three young children.
My wife will not put up with people being mean to each other or doing unjust things. As a young mother of three toddlers, she once waded into the Appoquinimink River near our home in Delaware to confront a fisherman who was using illegal gill nets. Leaving our three children on the bank, she waded waist-deep into the muddy, brackish water to passionately lecture the fisherman about his illegal actions, starting with how unfair it was for the fish. The fisherman fled.
But there is risk with this approach and there are times when you won't feel comfortable making a public display of disapproval. In these situations, the very least that you can do is to show support for the person who has been at the brunt of rude or mean behavior. While I am a hopeful person, and believe that our basic human instinct is to protect each other and to be empathetic, we invariably see moments in our daily lives when feelings are hurt, either intentionally or not. In those moments a kind gesture or word can make a difference in someone's day. We must for our community—and really for all of humanity--do our very best to help others have the confidence to lead productive and fulfilling lives.
One definition of "goodness" is making the lives of others better. In contrast, evil behavior could be defined as intentionally robbing another person of his or her own humanity. So, watch out for and protect those who, for whatever reason, are vulnerable to destructive behavior.
In terms of the second question: what do you do when you are the target and you do not have a George or a Mrs. Caldwell to save you from an unjust moment? Even the small moments when someone is perhaps unknowingly mean to you can derail you from your day.
The first thing is to know that it is possible that the person had no idea that you felt hurt by his or her statement or gesture.
But it is also possible that even someone you thought was a friend has intentionally gone out of his or her way to hurt you.
In cases like these here is what you need to keep in mind.
First, it is helpful to understand that when someone, even someone who you thought was a friend, is mean or rude, it is very likely that something is going on in their life that is upsetting them. This is totally out of your control, so take solace in the fact that this mean behavior is not about you but about them. Something in their life is hurting them. See if you can shift your perspective from feeling hurt by their behavior to feeling sorry for them. Your feelings of pain will diminish dramatically.
When my youngest daughter was in 5th grade she got into the car and told my wife that Sam had said to her, "you are not pretty, you are not smart, you are not athletic and nobody likes you." My wife calmly said, "Lucinda, that says everything about Sam, and nothing about you," and the subject was dropped.
So don't let "Sam" define who you are – that is in your control and your control alone. I will end with one of my favorite quotes from a hero of mine, Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."