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Practicing civility in an uncivil world

Serenity now. (iStock)

One afternoon on my way to pick up my younger daughter from an after-school art activity, I stopped at a crosswalk (a Maine law) for two teenage boys who were waiting patiently while a stream of traffic flowed by at slightly more than the 25 mph posted for that section of road. My older daughter was in the car with me; I had the windows down; it was early spring and the cold sunshine was welcome, if brisk. As I slowed to a stop, suddenly there was a woman snarling “THANKSALOT!” into my open window from hers. Apparently, my stopping for the pedestrians in the crosswalk she had just driven through temporarily blocked the left turn she wanted to make.

I sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to turn and yell things like “it’s state law, [bad word I don’t need my kids to hear here]!” to people like that, but of course that would just be perpetuating the misery.

My response was silent resignation, much less satisfying in the moment, but really, the only reasonable option, particularly as one of my children was present. Things like this happen all the time around here, especially in the school parking lot. I don’t double-park and glare at people while I do it, or bully my way into spaces too small for my mini-van, or shout at people as they are pulling out while I drag my child down the middle of the parking lot instead of using the sidewalk, but that all seems to be standard etiquette in Central Maine, and I imagine that it is the same in a lot of places.

Life can be hard, and people lash out. My kids are exposed to a lot of unpleasantness at school because it trickles down from what many of their classmates get at home. I want to equip them to do more than just survive it; I want them to be able to see the good amidst the tough realities and help make the good stronger, but these are skills I’m still developing myself.

Rude behavior sometimes overwhelms the general kindness that can also be found everywhere; one hostile comment, glare, or honk can undo the work of many quiet smiles, waves, or an unprompted “good morning!” I’ve lived in Maine, North Dakota, Colorado, Alaska, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut and London, and I’ve encountered various forms of incivility wherever I’ve been.

In Alaska, I was appalled by the way grown-ups behaved at athletic events. I despise softball to this day because of the way my team, when I was 11, was taunted by other parents. Our major cross-town high school basketball rivalry in Fairbanks was entertaining not because of the game being played, but because two mothers from the opposing teams would scream obscenities at each other the entire time.

In North Dakota in the 1990s, there was a surface politeness wherever you went, but there was also a conformist rigidity that disdained difference. I remember coming in from my parents’ dry cabin (no running water) after a few days and stopping at the grocery store before going home to shower. I was wearing baggy sweats and one of my dad’s old flannel shirts; my hair was dirty and I just didn’t care how I looked. A couple of blond college-aged girls looked me up and down in the checkout line, the disgust evident on their faces. I ignored them, pitying their narrow-mindedness, but part of me wanted to get up close and yell “Boo!” just to make them uncomfortable, to do to them what they were trying to do to me, what they likely tried to do to anyone who didn’t fit their idea of what people should look like.

And in Boston, when I was seven months pregnant with my first child, I was shoved aside by a woman at a Dunkin’ Donuts so she could get in line ahead of me.

The internet was teeming, in the weeks after Roger Ebert’s death in 2013, with his words about kindness, life, and death. “I’m glad I lived long enough to learn that” he wrote, about how kindness is simply the only thing that is important. It’s irksome that sometimes (most times, in the face of random hostility) it seems as though the kindest thing is passivity, pretending that you didn’t see or hear what in fact you did see, what you did hear, and more importantly, pretending not to feel what you felt. It is sort of fun, as I said, to fantasize about screaming back or getting out of the mini-van and up in another mother’s face, or sticking my tongue out at some uptight sorority girl because she’s only ever been surrounded by clean, blond, white people. And don’t pregnant women sometimes get a hormonal pass for irrational behavior?

My daughters, preteens, are fascinated when drivers honk their horns. I don’t feel that honking at drivers who do stupid things is going to magically turn them into better drivers, but I understand the temptation.

I’m also afraid of myself a little, afraid that if I land on the horn I won’t stop, succumbing to an epic episode of road rage and giving someone the “ride from hell” (following a car wherever it goes, madly honking the horn and tailgating).

Instead, I ignore being cut off, and I generally wait patiently if someone has failed to notice that the light has turned green. The one time that I lightly tapped the horn at a green left-turn arrow (only because I know it to be an extra-short light and we were already late for gymnastics) the girls jibbered excitedly: “Was that you, Mom? Why did you honk? Are you mad at that driver?” and I began to wonder what more I need to do at home so that when they are confronted with conflict in real life it doesn’t send them into space. But on the road, in our community, in the world, I want them to see compassion, to understand that meeting anger with anger is senseless, that we, as humans, as highly evolved creatures, have a choice, a time between stimulus and response in which we get to decide what to do; in that moment, we get to decide who we are.

I admit that my fallback state at times has been aloofness, not exactly kindness or compassion. Heavy traffic, crowds, waiting in line – these are situations I find desperately unpleasant, and I’m sure my face is a mask of reserve, closed shut. At least I hope it is. And so how can I preach civility when I’m sometimes barely able to tolerate basic human interaction in the town in which I live? I’m trying. I’m especially trying to be less binary in my thinking. There is another choice, I think, beyond either passivity or reactivity. I try to remember that people are being aggressive on the road or hostile in general because they probably feel powerless somewhere else in their lives, that they look me up and down perhaps because they are afraid of being themselves.

I have always made an effort to put things in context for my children, when they have been sad about mean behavior on the playground or as they start to become aware of larger truths about suffering in the world, but I had not been doing that for myself, I realized, not really. I was protecting myself with anger, too.

I now turn and look at people when they’re rude to me, not afraid, I hope, to show them that they’ve hurt me just a little, and let them see that hurt, not the anger and ugliness that we so often put up in front of our pain. Maybe their pain will see mine, and we’ll recognize something in each other that reminds us that being a little kinder is the only rule we ever need to know.

Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes teaches and writes in Maine. She tweets @efstokes.

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