My world has become meaner, of late, and I’m guessing yours has, too.
Mean, in the sense of “harsh, spiteful, and cruel,” but also in the sense of “crude, lowly, or ignoble.”
Work, politics, society, and even some relationships have taken on a more callous, retributive aspect. People don’t want to listen — They don’t even want to care. — and it feels like the whole social contract has begun to unravel.
My world has indeed become more mean.
In response, I find that I have becoming meaner, as well. Patience has vanished. Reactions have intensified. Empathy has hit rock bottom.
And I hate it.
So I’m doing something about it.
I’m changing the only thing I can.
Yesterday, in the checkout at WinCo, there were only three stands open, each with a long line of chock-full carts stacked up like airliners waiting to land. Picking a line was like…well, like picking a candidate for president this year, so I got in the shortest of long lines and waited. When I finally got within sight of the cashier, the shopper ahead of me started handing things back to the clerk. She didn’t have enough money to cover what she’d picked up, and so now everyone else had to wait while she handed items back and reran the total in an embarrassing “What’s it at now?” dance.
This was at the end of a long day. After a bad week. Following a difficult month. In what’s been a crappy year.
I was annoyed. I was more than annoyed. I was pissed off.
And then something changed.
I don’t know what it was — Maybe it was the parsley and dinner rolls she handed back on her third attempt to reduce the total, or maybe it was the smiles she and the clerk wore, or maybe it was just that, for a moment, I remembered when I had to kite checks and search the couch for change — but something inside me, some part of the steam-powered machinery that was forging my anger just…stopped. My conscience threw a sabot into the gears and, when I realized what had happened, my perspective switched…
Parsley. And rolls. Simple things, a small extravagance perhaps, but more than she could afford that day. She was likely planning a nice dinner for the family, complete with parsley for garnish and hot, doughy, tear-away rolls with sweet butter. Now she’d have to go with Plan B.
Smiles. Those weren’t just polite smiles meant to paper over an awkward situation. There was no judgment, no moue or shaking of the head. The smiles were genuine, as was the “We’ll work it out, together” attitude. She was in a jam, and the clerk was helping her with a fix. Simple. Kind. And rather sweet.
Remembering. As well as kiting checks and taking lint-covered coins to the mini-mart, I recalled how embarrassed and demoralized I’d felt when I miscalculated the total of my own purchases and had to put something back. Whether I’d forgotten to carry the one or failed to account for sales tax, it didn’t matter. I’d made a mistake, in public, and discommoded others. It hadn’t been a fun feeling for me. I’m sure it wasn’t for her, either.
The switch lifted me up, lessening the weight that has been building within for days, weeks, months. The weight isn’t gone — not by a long shot — but even a little relief is welcome relief.
So, from today onward, I’m going to try to make this an intentional switch. My hope is that if I do this often enough, it will once again become second nature. But even if it doesn’t, I believe it will be worth the effort, paid back with a lowered blood pressure and a sweeter disposition.
Without doubt, I will fail. There will be the inevitable moments when I snap and snarl. Perfection is not the goal. I’m shooting for higher, but at this point, I’ll be happy to bat 500.
Wish me luck.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch