On a more frequent basis than I am comfortable with, I seem to be missing some pages of the script for simple human interaction. Two things happened today, and it is not yet ten in the morning…
I was sitting at my favorite coffee shop in one of two comfortable plush chairs. The shop was fairly full, and the only open seats were five high stools at a raised counter. With my back condition, these high stools are not endurable for more than about ten minutes, tops. I was plugged into my iPod listening to some B. B. King, reading Screwtape Letters on my Kindle, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I removed the ear buds and looked up into the pleasant face of a woman in her thirties, accompanied by a second woman approximately the same age.
“Would you mind moving?” she asked.
“Uhm…” I intelligently replied.
“There are two of us, and we’d like to sit where you are,” she explained.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized for no apparent reason. “There are chairs over there,” I said, pointing to the counter.
“We don’t want to sit there; we want to sit here, where it’s more comfortable,” she told me.
As she said this, a table for two across the room opened up, so I said, “There you go! A table just opened up.”
I started to put my ear buds back in, but she spoke up and demanded, “Well, aren’t you going to move?”
I defiantly said, “No,” and took a drink of my coffee.
The woman, no longer looking pleasant, stomped across the room, her friend in tow, and spent the next twenty minutes giving me dirty looks. It somewhat spoiled my morning reading time. As I was leaving, one gentleman who had observed the exchange commented, “Some people think the world revolves around them, huh?” To which his wife piped up in rebuttal, “Well, in my day, a gentleman would have offered a lady his seat!”
Shortly after I arrived at my office, I got a phone call. Our Annual Conference begins in another two weeks and he was “inquiring” about a display table.
“Yeah, I need a display table for Annual Conference,” he stated.
“I’m sorry,” I explained, “but we don’t have anymore tables available this year. The deadline for reserving them was two weeks ago.”
“But I need one.” he explained.
“Well, I’m very sorry, but there aren’t any available,” I explained back.
“I had one last year,” he told me, a propos of nothing.
“I don’t know what to tell you. We set a deadline and the entire display area is reserved.”
“Well, add one more,” he advised. “I need a table when I get there. I don’t care if you put me in the hallway.”
“Uhm, no, we can’t do that. We have a contract with the conference center. We have allotted the maximum number of display tables. We can’t add any,” I said.
“You can, but you won’t, is what you mean,” he growled. “Look, just let me talk to somebody that will get me a table, okay?”
“I’m the person you need to talk to, and I am telling you, we don’t have any more display tables. My only advice is not to wait so late next year,” I told him.
“$#!},” he spat, “There had better be a table for me when I get to Annual Conference!” And he hung up.
Now, am I crazy, or is this a trend in interpersonal relationships in our culture and society? Is there any handbook written that affirms or applauds such behavior? Has “me first” become the default setting? Entitlement the new norm? And, on a personal level, do I have “doormat” written on my forehead?
On a recent flight from Texas, a woman got on the plane, took the seat beside me, and stuffed her handbag and computer bag under the space in front of MY seat, leaving herself leg room under the seat in front of her. Didn’t ask if it was okay, just did it. When I asked her if she would move her bags, her response was to ignore me and ask the flight attendant if she could be moved to another seat. As she got up to move, she muttered “@$$#0LE!” back at me.
Is this happening to everyone? (Paranoia kicks in…) Friday I returned to my car to drop off a package, and another driver thought I was leaving and waited for the spot. When I closed the door and it became clear I wasn’t going anywhere, he gave me the finger and yelled something unintelligible (but I am sure quite flattering). What I am saying is that this level of selfish incivility is becoming a daily occurrence.
Why? Why are people so self-centered? (And why do I feel self-centered when I fail to accommodate them?) What got broken, and how do we fix it?
I admire some of the insights and humor of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore and others on TV, but I see the roots of disrespect, aggressive behavior, and sarcasm as the underbelly and foundation of what they do. There is edginess and there is going to far; there is pushing the limits and violating boundaries; there is pointing out the emperor’s naked and there is flat out bad taste — and the dividing lines are not always clear or agreed upon.
But why do we always have to straddle the line? Why can’t we decide to err to the side of kindness? Why can’t respect and compassion and mercy and gentleness be our default settings? It may not be possible for our dominant culture, but couldn’t we do a better job modeling it in the church? Paul writes that where God is truly at work empowering the community through the Holy Spirit, there will be clear and obvious evidence — fruit, if you will. How will we know we are living in the light of Christ? Well, we will be more loving and kind. Our faithfulness will be evident through our patience and gentleness. We will be peace-makers and peace-keepers and we will exhibit exemplary self-control. We will experience and become a source of joy. Our generosity will spill over and provide abundance for all. This is not a “we gotta try to make this happen,” kind of thing, but a “they will know we are Christians by our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” kind of thing.
A shift from “me thinking” to “we thinking” will not happen on its own. The movement needs to be led. The shift needs a plan. I would love for every congregation to make a commitment to have a fruit producing strategy as their basic ministry plan. It would be great to see what kind of difference we could make.