On Saturday, as I descended the stairwell leading from the locker rooms to the pool at my YMCA, I was brought up short by a child who made a tent with his fingers and stopped to waggle them, oblivious to the person walking just behind him.
His mother shouted at him and apologized, but the incident touched a nerve rubbed raw by life in the city. In a place where the slightest task can hardly be accomplished without entering a press of people, where you mingle with thousands of strangers every day and the only solitude comes in your own apartment — though, unless you are single and rich, you likely share that with a stranger, too — consideration is vital.
Not engagement, necessarily, but an awareness of self and other. Small, common-sense acts — a held door, a hand with a cart — are what keep everyday routines from becoming a trial, if not from breaking down altogether. Yet I seem to notice, now more than when I arrived four years ago, acts of thoughtlessness.
Standing in front of subway doors without letting passengers off, pushing in as they exit, not giving seats to the elderly; refusing to move to the back of the bus, though the front is crowded; leaving carts in the center of narrow grocery store aisles; loud cell phone conversations in quiet places; and so on. Such trivial things, they require no special effort, no break from routine, only the most rudimentary level of empathy. In some ways their omission bothers me far more than other mistakes and cruelties which can at least be considered personal.
Nevertheless, as the boy descended I wondered if there might not be something unhealthy in my sentiments. What does it say that I become so annoyed? Might I not be taking it personally, seeing myself as the target of these small unkindnesses — my dismay a reflection of supreme self-centeredness masquerading as public concern?
I entered the pool and did my laps. In my lane was an old woman who swam slower than everyone else, but instead of letting us pass on the turns she’d push off again, causing delays behind her. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about the society we live in: one marked by a radically unfair division of wealth and dwindling social services, by short attention spans and rats-on-a-ship reality television, by unbridled consumerism, reflexive power worship, home theater systems, friends walking side-by-side with headphones in their ears. No, I thought, it’s not about me. It’s about our culture. No wonder people are such assholes.
Back and forth I went in the pool. After a while I rested and realized that a loud, repetitive shout I’d unconsciously ignored was coming from one of a group of children playing in the lanes next to mine. Looking closer, I realized they were mentally disabled. Among them was the boy from the landing, a stack of multicolored floats strapped to his back like so many candy wafers. He paddled tentatively as his mother held him, her face gentle and radiant with love and pride.
Image: David Sim