We’re Meaner

I guess I messed up on the road the other day. I didn’t turn on red right away, and the driver behind me took exception. She laid on her horn. About a half-mile later, she pulled up along side me and gestured to me to put my window down. I did. “Why didn’t you turn back there?!” she demanded. “Learn how to drive!” she screamed. This lady was livid. She wagged her finger at me, her voice, shaking as she spoke.

The rest of my morning commute, I saw her face in my head and I wondered why that five-second delay in her morning so enraged her.

I realize this encounter was minor compared to the profanity-laced road rage that goes on every day in America. At least she didn’t pull out a gun. One thing’s for sure: We’re meaner. Check out the online comments of any newspaper or read Twitter for two minutes. It’s not unusual for someone to tell another person to go kill themselves or wish their family harm because they hold an opinion contrary to their own. And that’s just the sports page!

I once heard a theory that the invention of the air-conditioner was the worst thing that ever happened to America. Once upon a time, people in big cities would be out on their balconies yelling to one another, telling jokes, and ripping on their sports teams. In the south, everyone was on their porches. We knew each other. We knew each other’s kids. With full permission from their parents, we even disciplined them when they misbehaved! We learned boundaries. We talked politics and we argued, but since we were neighbors, we eventually agreed to disagree.

Today, we shut ourselves in and ask Alexa to put the temperature at 71 degrees as we binge-watch Netflix and stare at our phones.  We’ve never been more connected or more disconnected.

A couple of weeks ago, video of a boy helping an elderly woman up some stairs went viral. It was sweet, but I thought: How did common decency become so uncommon? Imagine Walter Cronkite airing that video. Millions of viewers would scratch their heads and ask, “And?”

I’m far from perfect, and I have bad days. But as I get older, I’m actually going in the opposite direction of much of society. My empathy is growing and my anger is shrinking. Your restaurant server is doing the best she can. Maybe it’s her first job. Maybe no one has ever believed in her. That retail worker who doesn’t have your size might be buried under an avalanche of student loan debt unsure of how to get out. And maybe something is going on with that driver in front of you. Like a few weeks ago when the pain of pressing down on my gas pedal with my torn hamstring brought tears to my eyes.  I was doing the best I could.

Can’t we have air-conditioning, Netflix, and kindness?