During a moment in the checkout line at Costco, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be the worst time for the apocalypse to strike. There might have been two hundred souls in the building, and if we were suddenly thrust into a survival situation by nuclear attack or zombie outbreak, we would have hundreds of tons of food, along with plenty of pharmaceuticals, first aid supplies, and toilet paper on hand.
If a crisis forced you to spend weeks or months together with a fairly random selection of strangers, you’d soon find out which of these people are a positive, helpful presence, and which aren’t.
Like most people probably do, I like to think I’d be one of the more helpful and welcome members of this new post-apocalyptic family, but I’m not sure why I think that. It’s probably the “Lake Wobegon Effect” — our tendency to overestimate our value and capabilities in relation to others. It’s the same phenomenon that has 90% of us believing we’re better-than-average drivers. (Clearly about 40% of us are wrong on that count, but I’m still somehow nearly 100% sure I’m not one of them.)
As Sam Harris points out in Waking Up, one of the reasons we feel so comfortable watching movies and television is because they allow us to observe and judge the intimate happenings of other people’s lives, while at the same time being completely shielded from their scrutiny of ourselves.
In any case, I’m fascinated by how readily we make judgments about strangers, yet how little we actually know about their personality and character (until, perhaps, some unlikely crisis brings them to the surface.)
Over the years I’ve become more aware of my snap judgments, but they still happen all the time. I frequently catch myself damning certain strangers as altogether bad people, on the basis of one instance of their not using their turn signal, or having a conversation that blocks a doorway.
I’m trying to overcome the habit of justifying these casual, internal condemnations of strangers. Instead, I see if I can overcome my initial negative impression completely, whenever I notice I’m being judgey. My new response to that negativity is this: I decide to drop the low-level resentment, and instead become their secret ally, for the few minutes we are in each other’s presence.
I’ll explain what I mean. This practice started spontaneously on an ordinary day a few months ago:
I’m walking several blocks to a little grocery store down my street, stuck behind a slow-moving man who is walking directly down the center of the narrow sidewalk. There’s no room to go around without stepping into the street, or shimmying past him on the building side.
At first I have my normal reaction of disdain and character judgments. The usual self-righteous internal monologue starts up: Some people just never think about how they affect others! I would never be that unaware of my surroundings! And so on. The fundamental message of all of these thoughts is, “I’m better than you.”
It’s telling that I only become interested in the Ethics of Proper Sidewalk-Sharing in moments when I’m being personally inconvenienced. Even though the issue undoubtedly affects millions of people every day, it never seems to be an important topic to think about at any other time. Many or most of our internal moral complaints about others are really just petty reactions to being inconvenienced, and not any kind of meaningful examination of personal ethics or how to run a society. I’m learning to distrust these kinds of thoughts when I have them, but I still have them.
Anyway, on this occasion I’m lucky enough to feel a pang of guilt for judging this person. He’s a middle-aged man, dressed in a golf shirt and dad jeans, almost certainly unaware that he’s blocking all but the most aggressive and acrobatic attempts to pass him. Still, it’s not fair to deem him a less aware or less considerate person than I am, because even though I’m frustrated with what he’s doing right now, I really know almost nothing about him.
Although I tend to walk at Manhattan speeds wherever I am in the world, right now I’m not exactly in a rush. So instead of making a move to get past this man, I decide to just relax and walk a good ten meters behind him, at a pace of his choosing. And instead of my normal habit of presuming he’s an especially bad or inconsiderate person, I’ll presume he’s an especially good one, or at least good enough not to deserve bitter glares from a stranger.
Casual disdain for the odd stranger, for those of us who are prone to it, is a long-conditioned reaction and it doesn’t take much to trigger it. But in spite of my conditioning, I’d rather err on the side of being too approving and too forgiving of strangers, than settle into lasting resentment at the slightest offense.
So to keep myself on the fairer side, I decide that for as long as I’m behind this man, not only will I refrain from judging him, but I will watch out for his well-being, and come to his aid if necessary.
Whatever happens, if I really think I can help, I will offer my help. If he looks like he’s searching for an address, I’ll ask him if he needs directions. If there does happen to be a meteor strike or an alien invasion during my short tenure as his guardian angel, I will help him get to safety, phone his loved ones or fend off roving bandits. Even if there’s no obvious way in which I can help, I’ll still harbor a secret hope that this walk and the rest of his day goes well for him.
Now, it’s not important whether any of these events are likely to happen. The point is to locate that feeling of being willing to help, of being someone who cares about this other person. These feelings are incompatible with that of being just another cold stranger.
By doing this I’m creating a total, deliberate inversion of my initial feeling towards him. In the first moment I noticed him, he was an adversary, just another instance of evidence that the human world is mean, and that we are a selfish, thoughtless species — an irony that was almost lost on me. And now he’s someone I’m cheering for, someone whose well-being is worth something to me.
The most gratifying part is knowing that this man has no idea he has gained a secret ally — just as he probably had no idea when he gained, briefly, a secret detractor. My new role makes me feel good in the way judging him made me feel bad.
We make snap judgments of others all the time, and it’s not really on purpose. Those kinds of thoughts happen like reflexes. But we don’t have to believe them. If my initial impression of a stranger is a negative one, there’s no reason to take for granted that he truly is undeserving of respect, help, or well-wishes. In fact, I am almost certainly wrong to come to any conclusions about a person’s character after only “knowing” them for three seconds.
And I no longer believe that these kinds of judgments are somehow helpful to the world at large — that I’m somehow upholding order and civilization with my intolerance of any perceived infringement of sidewalk ethics. They are only helpful in a completely self-serving way: to convince myself that I shouldn’t be experiencing the inconvenience I’m currently experiencing.
If you live among strangers, chances are you are constantly becoming a private adversary to other people in ways you could never comprehend. Maybe somebody at the grocery store secretly hates you because of where you lock your bike up, or because you ride a bike at all. Or maybe you stand too close in the ATM line, or you use too many buzzwords, or you’re breaking some unwritten rule in a restaurant, or you’re in the way and have no idea. When you think of all of the petty things for which you’ve privately condemned someone at one time or another, it’s no stretch at all to imagine how often you are, in someone else’s eyes, clearly a bad person.
I’ve discovered that as much as I value good sidewalk etiquette and awareness of one’s surroundings, I want to be the secret adversary of as few people as possible. So part of my recovery is this new habit of becoming a secret ally to a given stranger the moment I notice I’m tempted to become his secret enemy.
Not only does it make that particular instance a much more positive and enjoyable interaction for me, but it’s quickly lightening up my overall relationship to strangers, even to the entire species.
I wonder a lot about the private grievances (and fondnesses) that arise between strangers, as we briefly pass into and out of each other’s lives. Imagine if you could hear every verbal thought that occurs between strangers during a single minute in a typical public square, airport, or streetcorner.
I would love to think that we’d hear more words of compassion, fondness, and willingness to help than words of disdain, but I really doubt that. Casual coldness to strangers is probably the norm.
But every norm has exceptions. You certainly have had secret allies, at times you will never know. And you can also be one, any time you like.