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. Read More