The French existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had a theme in his writing that unfortunately resonates still today. If you’ve ever read the play “No Exit” you know well what it is – “Hell is other people.”
This idea has been on my mind, as recently I’ve realized one of my greatest challenges in being a true Catholic is learning to love all of God’s people. I wasn’t always this way. I once loved meeting new people, being in the thick of crowds, and so on. As I’ve aged, I’ve found myself doing things to avoid “people.”
I’m not talking necessarily about specific people in my life. We all make mistakes, disagree even with good friends and family, and if we’re honest, know we can be more annoying than comforting at times. Sometimes we just don’t want to be together.
I’m talking more about society and it’s ever shifting ideas of what is acceptable. People today truly believe they are personally more important than anyone else, and they act on it. Not when it comes to big things, like political ideals, religion, etc., although we see it there as well. Where it’s really hard to take is in everyday situations.
For instance, I’ve noticed lately people racing each other into restaurants in order to get on the wait list first. Others racing each other to the closest available parking space. I even had a woman race me to the cart return at the grocery store one morning. We want to be first at everything, it seems.
Lately, I’ve had to fight my way through grocery store isles past people who have stopped to have long conversations with neighbors without stepping out of the thoroughfare. Watched younger drivers honk their horns impatiently at slow-walking elderly people crossing streets and parking lots. Just recently, taking my daughters to an activity, I was amazed to see one parent block half of the entrance road to a sports facility with her SUV, and remain there until her child’s lesson ended, some 45 minutes later. (There was plenty of parking in the lot.)
Have we lost the ability to be considerate of others? How hard has it become for us to be aware of our surroundings enough to be polite to someone else? Or is it that we’re so self-absorbed that we don’t even notice other people?
It seems to get worse all the time. I had an elderly woman going about 80 on a motorized scooter side swipe my daughter on the Boardwalk at Walt Disney World one morning. I’m not sure which was more at fault. My daughter walking in the middle of the nearly empty pathway, gawking at Lord knows what, or the scooter speeder, who refused to move over, even though she definitely saw the child (she was yelling “move! move!” as she zoomed by.)
I’ve always been big on teaching my girls about “presence,” partially for safety and partially out of respect for others. They get it, but don’t seem to understand why they should care when other people obviously don’t.
We often talk about improving our world, and most people seem to think you have to make the news to be heard. But really all you have to do is be mindful of what’s happening around you. Hold that door for the older person or pregnant woman – or anyone else. Don’t cut in line before someone who you know won’t challenge you. Be patient with an overworked waitress who forgets the ketchup.
In other words, don’t sweat the small things other people trip over in life. Even when they’re making things inefficient for you. Like the people in airport security lines who never know the rules or wear boots with twenty different closures on them when they travel. I actually got behind a guy one day who had no picture ID. At an airport. After 9/11.
We all do things that annoy others. Living and breathing in close quarters with the people of the world is trying. We all do things different. I’m trying to lighten up this Lent. Maybe if we all try, we’d see that we can get along on bigger things.