I’m continuing a small series where I discuss my mantra of Be Patient, Be Polite, Be Positive, Be Powerful, Be Present in relation to the great article by Mark Manson I read on Not Giving a Fuck because I’m really digging on his concept of not giving a fuck as an overall mantra as well, and I think the two dovetail nicely. My last entry talked about how I struggled with being patient in my day-to-day living and how figuring out ways to deal with that impatience has really brought down my stress levels and help me kick depression as well. Today imma talk about being Polite.
A coworker asked me today what my blog was about, and I gave her my tagline of “Finding happiness in a shitty world” and she asked whether I thought we, as a society, obsessed too much about happiness. I told her I thought not only did we obsess about it, we felt ENTITLED to it, and that when we felt our happiness (read: our comfort level) was threatened, we got scared, and when we got scared, we got angry, and when got angry, we lashed out.
And that’s what we’ve become, haven’t we? A society of lasher-outers. We lash out at people on the Internet. We lash out at people in Walmart. We lash out at people in parking lots. We lash out at people in post offices and in school libraries and movie theaters. We lash out at each other’s religions and governments and cultures. We lash out at a man selling untaxed cigarettes on the sidewalk. Then we lash out at the people protesting his death.
We lash out at people for cutting us off in traffic for cutting in lines in front of us for saving too many seats in a crowded theater for giving us the incorrect change for mailing us the wrong items in our packages for shitty internet service for giving us the wrong order for sitting in a seat that we were going to sit in for taking a parking spot we had our eye on.
We lash out with an irritation or an anger that is disproportionate to the sin, don’t we? We’ve all seen it. Some guy going apoplectic on some pimply-faced fast food worker because his bag contained a chicken sandwich instead of a double cheeseburger. Yeah, dude, we get it. It’s annoying, but it’s not like that kid slipped up during your brain surgery and left you a drooling paraplegic; he gave you the wrong fucking sandwich. Besides, didn’t you listen to Joe Pesci, in that great masterpiece Lethal Weapon 2, when he said “They FUCK you at the drive-through!“? Get over yourself. This level of rage is misplaced.
We lash out at people for being too fat for being too thin for crying too much for not crying enough for being too effeminate for being too butch for being too Arab or black or ginger for wearing pants too low for listening to music too different for reading newspapers different than the ones we read for living in a different region of the country for having different kinds of sex for reading a different religious book or for reading no religious book at all.
I’m not gonna get all kumbaya on y’all and say “why can’t we all just get along?” I’ve read one too many YouTube comment threads to know there’s no turning back. We’re so far past “polite society,” Gatsby’s monocle done shattered decades ago. But Christ y’all, enough. Enough with the hatred and petty meanness.
We churn it out at strangers and out at celebrities on the Internet, and then we take that attitude out into the world with us and spread it around in real life. We’re just so goddamned rude all the fucking time. Someone accidentally bumps into us, and instead of taking it as the accident it was, we’re quick to assume that it was somehow an intentional slight and we puff out our chests and say “watch it, man!” We no longer give strangers the benefit of the doubt; we assume everyone’s out to personally fuck us. So we tend to walk around with shields up all the time. Maybe it’s different in small-town America still, but I’ve been living in a big city for the last 25 years, and I’ve seen the levels of anger just barely simmering beneath the surface of humanity.
And I was the worst offender. Hell, I rode San Francisco MUNI and BART for 20 years. If you’ve experienced Bay Area public transit, you’ve experienced Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell. If you don’t wear your headphones and City Face at all times, you are in danger of being accosted by some serious freaks, so you isolate yourself in your Freak Free Zone and put your earbuds in, pull your hoodie way over your head, plaster a scowl on your face, and retreat deep into your phone. It’s all about isolation and judgement.
And I dunno y’all, I just got so tired of being so angry at everyone—at strangers—all of the fucking time. It was depleting my energy and leaving me sapped. I was so flight-or-fight all of the goddamned time. And I thought, “What would happen if I just started cutting all these fuckers some slack again, like everyone used to do?” Back in the Fifties, when men wore hats and opened doors for women instead of texting unwanted dickpix to them?
And so I started to make a conscious effort to start making connections with people in my community again because connecting with the people around me would make it a helluva lot easier to give them the benefit of the doubt. Part of my inability to produce basic human courtesy and empathy was tied to the fact that I’d done such a good job of cutting myself off from the rest of humanity.
About that time, my wife opened a bar in a very economically depressed area. It was in an area of Oakland that was known for high crime, high levels of homelessness, and high levels of drug arrests. In particular, the building her bar was to be located in had an alcove that was a favorite of local crackheads and ne’er-do-wells, and the alcove was often full of piss, shit, and needles. The residents of the condos above the bar were thrilled a bar was going in beneath them because it meant that finally the crackheads would have to find a new alcove.
And yes, the majority of the hardcore crackheads have found a new alcove, but the bar is now open and it’s still a colorful corner. But rather than be the white assholes that moved in, puffed out our chests, and said “We’re here now! Take that behavior elsewhere!” We actually started to get to know some of the guys that stuck around.
I was sick and tired of being angry and confrontational and seeing people as obstacles and stepping stones to the ends I wanted to achieve in my life. I was sick of having confrontations with people in the world, trying to bend people to my will. I was sick of seeing people in terms of what they were supposed to be like based on snap judgments of them, making assumptions of how they were going to behave based on whether they were wearing yoga pants or baggy pants. So I just fucking said enough. I just decided to start taking people at face value and to stop heading into my interactions with them based on preconceived judgments and assholishness. And I decided to let go of whatever minor butt hurts they might inflict upon me. Because fuck it, life is too short to give that many fucks, yanno?
And ya know what? I’ve had some incredible experiences as a result. I’ve talked to some crazy-ass people I never would have talked to otherwise. And I’ve learned some awesome shit! And it’s become way easier to laugh off the assholes I encounter. When some Berkeley busybody says to me with her pinched smile—as I quietly enjoy my coffee and cigarette more than 25 feet from the building entrance, as I am entitled to by law—“You know, you really shouldn’t smoke...” Instead of calling her a useless twat, I find it much easier to smile as her, look around on the ground as though she’s misplaced something, and say to her sweetly, “I don’t see any of your beeswax around here, do you? No? So why don’t you go find somewhere else to mind yours?” Or “You’ll be a lot happier once you realize you can’t control other people’s behavior.” My response is not confrontational, and honestly, they have no idea how to respond.
So that’s today’s lesson, my pets, go forth today and be polite. Just try to go out move through your day and make connections with people. Have a fucking conversation with the dude who serves you your coffee every morning that you grunt at every other morning. Smile at the homeless guy instead of averting your eyes like you do every other day. You don’t have to give him money, but tell him good morning and treat him like the human being he is and deserves to be treated. Hold the goddamned door open for someone. Strike up a conversation with the black kid in baggy pants at the bus stop. These are the people in your world too. To know them better is to know yourself better. To be kind to them, is to be kind to yourself.
Stop holding yourself so tightly. Once you unravel yourself just a little bit, you’ll see a whole world start to open up and you’ll find that your community is actually pretty amazing and that polite begats polite.