"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Socially Maladjusted

I've noticed this -- but then, I was raised with the concept of courtesy as the foundation of social interaction. From John Aravosis:

The other day a friend tweeted some Web site where you were supposed to spin a virtual wheel and then do the New Years' good deed the wheel landed on. The good deed it selected for me was "hold a door open for a stranger." Who wouldn't do that anyway? Since when did common courtesies become the thing of "special New Years promises"?

I do that constantly, and it's sort of interesting: there's a Thai restaurant on the first floor of the building, and the people who work there -- all Asians, pretty much -- are unfailingly courteous. They hold the door, and they thank those who hold the door for them, unlike some of the Westerners who don't even acknowledge that you've done them a courtesy -- who in fact don't acknowledge you at all.

We don't show up particularly well against the rest of the world. I remember being in Paris a number of years ago, head full of the conventional wisdom that the French, and especially Parisians, were rude and hostile, especially to Americans. Frankly, I've never met a group of people anywhere who were so unfailingly polite and good-humored -- except maybe New Yorkers.

I think the lack of common courtesy in America is the root of a lot of other behaviors that fall under the category of "my own private universe." Call it a lack of empathy, most clearly visible in the Christianist apologists for -- well, you name it: not only ignoring others' points of view, but refusing to admit that they even exist. And as we all know from the confirmation hearings for Justice Sotomayor, "empathy" is a joke on the right -- probably because it's a notable lack in their collective character, and too many of them are way beyond feeling shame. On the left, empathy becomes a cause, as does everything else, and I wonder sometimes how many of the PC left actually feel empathy for others in any way but the abstract.

Aravosis quotes Dr. Douglas fields in this post from HuffPo, who goes into the effects of rudeness on brain development, which I'm not going to go into here -- you can read the original for that. But Dr. Fields cites the example of the Japanese, for whom rudeness is perhaps the ultimate sin. One thing I run across again and again in reading manga is the cry, "You're not thinking about how I feel!" I think that probably is an accurate reflection of Japanese attitudes, the stress on empathy -- unless you think about how others feel, you're going to be tearing at the fabric that holds us together.

We're selfish.

I think we do, as a people, worship selfishness. It's not only the Rand Paul/Megan McArdle school of libertarianism that's at fault here. Just think about the emphasis in contemporary Christianity -- at least, the most visible and vocal proponents of it -- not on the teachings of Christ, one of the most selfless individuals who ever lived, but on the dicta of authority, which have little to do with caring for our fellows. It's fairly obvious at this point that the Roman Catholic Church is all about preserving its own privilege, and not much else. I don't think many of the Protestant sects are far behind -- just think about their cries for "religious freedom" -- for themselves, of course, not for anyone else.

And there's also St. Ronny and his economics of greed -- we're paying the price for that now. If you want to see the ultimate expression of our selfishness, just look at the heroes of Wall Street, who simply have no clue that they've done anything wrong. Oh, and I'm not buying the idea that it's corporations doing this, and corporations are soulless. Corporations reflect the values of those who run them.

I sometimes feel guilty when I refuse to give change to panhandlers on the street -- I don't have huge resources, but I could probably spare a little something, most days. Then I think about the coworker who recently lost her father, and was so grateful for a hug on her first day back at work, or the editorial assistant, someone whom I almost never see, who stopped by the front desk one day and poured her heart out. That's what I give: myself.

I'm not trying to make myself out to be a saint, it's just that that's what I have to give. I think we all do, and maybe we should all think about giving it more often. It all starts with common courtesy, which is just another way of saying respect and empathy toward others.

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