Saturday, January 3, 2009


It was another long tiring day; I was on my way home from work, having first swung by the grocery store to purchase a couple of bags loaded with food. As I turned the corner onto my side-street, the woman walking in front of me approached a van precariously parked halfway on the road, and halfway on the sidewalk. It appeared to be loaded with people; you could see a video playing on a mounted little TV inside. The position of the vehicle was such that there was only enough room for one person to get between the van and a fence bordering an adjacent yard. Briefly I considered crossing the street, but seeing as I lived on this side, that seemed an awful long detour just to avoid an annoying obstacle.

The woman, middle-aged and carrying a bag containing several cartons of take-out food from one of the multitudes of neighboring restaurants, reached for the side door on the van, but realized that I was right behind her. Instead of opening the door, she turned sideways, allowing me to awkwardly pass.

All of that: the van parked on the sidewalk, packed full of people, the tired woman fetching food, was pretty much normal for the our area. It's a popular spot full of restaurants, which attract a large number of agitated type A people, so you get used to it.

Type A personalities, for those unfamiliar with that all too common distinction are aggressively "action-oriented" people who chase after results without concern for the consequences; the "just do it" crowd who believe that "done" mitigates the means. The ones that, as in this case, are far too busy accomplishing "stuff" to have to follow any silly, little things like "parking rules".

My encounter was yet another normal neighborhood occurrence happening at regular intervals, which typically would not have sparked any notice or burned itself into my memory. What changed this was that this particular woman, in a loud, unmistakably sarcastic (and almost hurt) voice said "you're welcome!", as I passed. Apparently, one could easily assert, she felt somewhat slighted by my not saying "thank you" in response to her effort of getting out of my way.

I had in fact started to mumble "thank you", but the better side of me caught my feeble attempt and stifled it. This woman, after all was brazenly violating the local parking laws, and most rudely blocking my way on the sidewalk with her van. I really had nothing to thank her for. A last minute attempt to redeem herself by not making me wait for her to hand the food to someone in the back of the van was not some huge gesture done for my concern. I was already there waiting, she was blocked by my presence.

I'm sure she was quite busy, and had rushed off to a restaurant to save time from cooking. Proper parking in our neighborhood is difficult, so it isn't unusual to see people breaking the rules. In fact it's so common that it's extremely irritating. Some people, I guess, just assume it's acceptable, despite the number of parking tickets being given out on a regular basis.

There are real parking spaces, and proper parking lots, but it's busy, they're slower and they often cost money. It's far easier just to plop your machine down in the middle of the sidewalk and block everything while you rush off and wait for food. Convenience is a big issue.

That, I think is the crux of this matter: one more A type, with an overcomplicated self-imposed rushed lifestyle, gratefully sharing their current inconveniences with me, as if somehow it should be my problem too. There are an awful lot of people who feel somehow justified in bending or breaking the rules in order to get things accomplished. More astonishing, they feel unabashedly owed the right to break the rules whenever they please, as if by some divine gift. Rules, that were clearly meant for lesser people. People like me.

This all too common scenario plays out often enough in big cities. Nature played a big joke on us by making us all intrinsically selfish, we often fall back on our instinct to survive. While it is necessary sometimes to act entirely for one's self interest, some people have managed to use this as an entire philosophy on how to live out their lives: constantly pushing on the boundaries.

To make it worse, these people usually ignore their own behavior, restarting the clock from some arbitrary time of their choosing. This woman, for example, was clearly offended by my rudeness, but seemed unable to grasp the concept that she had initiated that reaction. People are so consumed in their own issues, and by their need to flourish rather than to just survive, that they quickly forget about the rest of world around them.

Call it a simple flaw or just a quirk of our behavior; it may seem nearly trivial, but our self-centered nature is the driving force behind most of the world's problems. Occasionally the planet helps, but the true miseries of this world are brought by people, and particularly those people who believe that they are right. Action -- in a very strange way -- has become our single greatest problem, with all sorts of foolish people solving all sorts of unrealistic problems in very bad ways.

Most people want to do good, but too many people just want. And they make their place in this world at the expense of those around them, without care or concern for what they are really doing. What starts with little things quickly becomes the justification for all sorts of horrible behavior. The cause in this case, blocking the sidewalk to get food, was an act unlikely to be justified by the sheer busyness of the woman's life, no matter how important she thought she was.

Had she not been so aggressively looking for a conflict, I would have passed by that woman and her van full of kids, not giving it a second thought. Cities, which are always tight quarters, which means you have to forgive all sorts of trespasses on a regular basis. Sometimes we can't help stepping on a toe or two, particularly in a dense crowd.

It was her protestation -- an all together too common act in this world lately -- however that just seemed so above and beyond what her expectations should have been, that I was forced to take her into account. Did she have a point? Was I the one not behaving well? Should I have been more forgiving?

Overtime I've tried very hard to learn to pay as little attention to most people as possible. What used to pass for interest, often comes out now as just disappointment or frustration these days. If you watch enough people, read enough newspapers, and pay enough attention to the world you start to see the same horrible patterns repeating themselves over and over again. The only way to not let it constantly depress you, is to try to ignore it whenever possible.

Still, while trying not to let it in, I don't want it to drag me down either. The only way to fight rudeness is to be excessively polite. The only way to fight selfishness is to try whenever, and wherever possible to not let oneself be dragged down to that level. In time, we'll no doubt become less selfish as a species, but the true test of one's character is to be that way, most of the time, right now. It's the examples we set that matter, not how they respond.

So, in many ways that woman was correct. I should have said "thank you", but not as she might assume, because of her actions, but in spite of them. "They'll never learn if you don't ...", goes the counter-argument, but to be fair: they'll never learn anyways. Those people -- those more self-oriented members of our species -- are not going to change in their lifetime or mine, they'll dish out the same misery in their wake, no matter how people act around them. They are all lost causes at best, but we shouldn't allow them to use us to justify their lowly behavior.

And we shouldn't let that sway us from trying to be better than them. If we want to rise above, we have to do it with our actions not just our desires. The measure of our lives isn't the wealth we accumulate, the jobs we do, or the kids we breed, but it is actually the consequences we leave behind us. A good life lead by a good person, even one with few material rewards, is the greatest thing that any person can achieve, and these days it is achieved so rarely.


  1. humans like any other species are programmed to be selfish.

    But we are the only ones in this whole evolution game who can CHOOSE not be selfish.Ironically, this awareness hasn't made us any less selfish.On the contrary we have swayed the other way.

    Small things like this interaction of yours speaks a lot about the general psyche and culture of the society which is often not observed.

  2. Hi Desperado,

    Certainly, and some cultures are better at being selfish than others. North Americans for example, are extremely self-focused, and they seem to praise that quality in others as long as they don't get caught doing something too illegal.


  3. "The measure of our lives isn't the wealth we accumulate, the jobs we do, or the kids we breed, but it is actually the consequences we leave behind us. A good life lead by a good person, even one with few material rewards, is the greatest thing that any person can achieve, and these days it is achieved so rarely."

    I very much agree. And unless it becomes less rare, it may be a yardstick by which we end up being measured a failure as a species - a flash in the pan, something brilliant but short-lived...

  4. Hi Paul,

    Heck, right now, if as a species we only managed to stay around a fraction of the time that the dinosaurs did, we'd be doing extremely well. They made it millions of years, we're not even sure if we can managed ten thousand.

    Size was their slow, but eventual undoing, while intelligence seems to be our more rapid one.