Sunday, May 9, 2010

Blow Ill Wind

Blow, Ill Wind

I’m tired. I’m emotionally tired. Surrounded by negative energy, day in and day out, and utterly befuddled about where the anger is coming from in many cases. I work in a medical office, so some of the folks who are angry get a pass. If they were feeling well, they wouldn’t be here, and may not be their best when they come to my window. But the staff? The families of the patients? Management? People on the bus and on the street? Kids at school bullying other children to suicide, then smirking their way down the perp walk? Shouldn’t we have come further than this as a people and a society?

I’m guessing that every sociologist, psychologist, philosopher, police officer, politician, teacher, and any other theoretician would have different views on why this age of discontent has taken over. Some would blame it on the president; some would blame it on the economy. There would be others who would say that crooked politicians or giant corporations are to blame, but others might blame it on illegal immigration. Old people would blame it on young people. And vice-versa. Teachers will blame it on administrators and parents, parents will blame it on teachers. Management on labor; labor on management. I think it just may be a bit of “all of the above.” Blacks would likely blame it on whites, and the other way around…and around and around.

If I may throw my entirely un-expert theory into the mix, I have to say this is a multi-faceted, complex problem, for which a Proposition 12,579 on the ballot in May or November will not do. Nor will a people’s movement or a social networking site push do the trick. I think we need to go way more basic than that.

Back in the 1980s I was a big fan of the Miss Manners books. I enjoyed her writing as light and tongue in cheek; but she did make an excellent point in all of her books and it is this: the point of manners is not to be anal about which fork to use, or which honorarium to use for a duke or a cardinal. Miss Manners said more than once that the real purpose of all those seemingly silly rules was to make other people feel comfortable. There is the famous story of the queen of England drinking the water from her finger bowl because one of her dinner guests did not know what it was for, and he drank it. The eldest family member at a family gathering sits at the head of the table, and begins eating first as a sign of respect. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Find out what it means…not just to me, but what it means to treat other people with respect. Is that an answer, or a question?

Both. In order for us to begin to value each other as human beings, we must start at the cradle. Which means that prospective parents must be taught what it is they should teach their children. Which means that teachers must start in school. Which means that governments (I don’t want to argue here about whether I mean the federal government or the states) will need to fund educational programs in which these types of skills are taught. So you see how the solution is just as multifaceted as the problem and the blame?

But then, we’ve had etiquette books around for centuries, so why are we having this discussion now? Well, as much as I hate to say it, I have to blame it on my era-the 1960s and 70s. But the seeds were planted earlier, and only began to bear some fruit then. The development of psychotherapy-in which people stopped being held responsible for their behavior because they could blame their parents or society for ruining them as human beings. I do not doubt that there are bad parents out there-and lazy people who would rather blame someone else than take control of their own destiny and personal behavior-but psychological studies may have been the beginning of the downhill run regarding how we treat our fellow man.

Anyone who is a fan of old movies will remember all the movies that took place during the depression. There were wealthy people, dressing for dinner, going to nightclubs in formal gowns, attending the opera wearing pearls and fur stoles. After World War II, many of these formalities began to wear away. Folks began to wear more casual dresses to the theater. Women marched for the right to wear pants, and I’m glad they did, but it seems that since the 70s, no occasion is worth dressing up for apart from proms, weddings and funerals. And even for prom, the “dress” is questionable; boys consider wearing a tie with anything at all “dressing up.” Dressing up for formal events is not a “rule” to be disagreed with or rebelled against-it is a symbol of the importance of the event. If it is a school event or performance-dressing nicely is a sign of appreciation for the work.
More important than how we dress, is how we listen. It is rude to interrupt. I honestly cannot recall the last time I had a conversation in which I was able to complete a thought before the other person injected his or her response before it was known what my thought really was. I'm guilty of this too.  Why are we in such a hurry that we can't truly listen to someone else rather than planning our next comment before they finish theirs? It makes the other person feel that we do not believe that what they have to say is valuable.

Other people matter. The 1970s saw the rise of lots of books about how one should "look out for number one" and other such ideas. Women marched to be freed from subjugation to their husbands. The civil rights movement was finally seeing some success, so it is understandable that a period of time to think about oneself and ones one dreams and desires. Time to pull back now, and find some balance. Yes, what I want to do is important. But I am not the only one to be considered-there are consequences to every word and action, and considering how my actions and comments may affect someone else is a worthy thing. If I think about how my beliefs might affect someone else, and I moderate my comments-I'm not suggesting being dishonest, just diplomatic, it may prevent hurting someone else and rendering my opinions irrelevant. If I must state a political or religious belief to people who disagree with me, and I do it in a considerate way, they may actually be likely to see the other side as less evil.

And, by the way, those who disagree with us are not evil. They are just different. That's ok. Learning to respect our differences, learning to find joy in the ideas of the other side, is an education. Education is good.
Being civil is not being "phony" or fake. I work with some people from very different worlds, and some of them dislike one another. Some of them dislike me. That's ok-I'm not wild about them either. But I am polite. I greet them in the morning. With a smile. I ask about their weekends, or events in their lives that I knew were going to take place. I don't ask for their cell phone numbers. I don't ask them to be my Facebook friend; that would be fake. But we spend more of our waking hours with our coworkers than we do with the people we actually choose to have in our lives, and I refuse to spend that much of my life giving in to negative energy. I will, therefore, do all I can to make my workplace as pleasant as possible. I see this as a positive thing, not a phony thing. I don't like phonies either.

I remember the restaurant scene in the movie "Pretty Woman." Julia Roberts was not comfortable in a fancy restaurant, and had spent her morning taking a crash course in which fork to use. But during an embarrassing moment the gentleman with whom she and Richard Gere were having dinner made her feel as if the incident happened all the time, and she had no reason to be embarrassed. Much like the finger bowl incident with the queen-the important thing was making the guest feel comfortable, and not like a leper because he wasn't  familiar with the ritual.
I'm not suggesting that oneself is not important-quite the contrary. But I am not more important than you, and vice versa. This is where I think we've got lost, and we need to begin to teach our children this-of course how you feel matters, but so does the other person. Parents need to teach compassion to young children so that they wouldn't consider bullying a school mate to suicide, and might in fact, try to prevent that kind of bullying from happening to a fellow human being. I've complained before about how far off track the 'self esteem movement' has gone. Concentrating on how wonderful one person is misses the point, and detracts from our sense of human value. It is not that I am so great, but that I am equally as good as anyone. John Donne had it so right when he said, "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."  I once heard Deepak Chopra talking about how to teach children compassion, and he mentioned how early parents must ask their children how cruel or bullying behavior makes the victim feel, so that the child will learn empathy. Empathy makes cruelty impossible. Manners are a symbol of empathy. 

And, along with the ability to reason, empathy is what makes us human.

1 comment:

Alyson said...

This morning on NPR, I heard a story that was lamenting the loss of values in America, in the sports arena. It was an homage to Hank Aaron as the last of the superheroes and how the next generation of baseball players to get close to his record was doing this via use of steroids, which the commentator saw a cheating. This report reminded me of this blog of yours in particular. The two have in common a loss of values in America, and an increase in "winning" via making money or considering the self as the ultimate.