I Dare You to Say Something Nice
Yesterday, as I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge with a friend, our attempts to social distance, and a bit of distraction, led us into the bike path. As one “gentleman” sped by on his bicycle, we heard him address us with some emphatic expletives meant to highlight the fact that we were in his lane — the bike lane — as pedestrians. A grievous sin, clearly. I yelled back my thanks for the information and wished him a nice day with a smile. Seriously. What would have been the point in adding to his anger or negativity? The world has enough of that. I felt sorry for him, actually. Terrible things are happening everywhere, and he’s clearly struggling in his attempt to process them, self soothe, and otherwise bring balance to his emotional stability.
The Brooklyn Bridge is a de facto pedestrian’s bridge. There are lines painted on its pathway which are meant to give cyclists a lane, but on a normal day those lines are effectively erased by the sheer quantity of walkers — many tourists, some natives. That anyone who lives here would try to intentionally bike across that bridge without a copious amount of patience is ill-advised. That’s on a normal day.
Yesterday, given current COVID-19 events, was anything but normal. You could actually see the color of the bridge’s walkway — so scarce were the pedestrians. So this “gentleman” must have felt especially put out to have to shift his route one foot to the left or right to avoid us. And he made sure we knew we’d inconvenienced him. Instead of ringing his bell so we could be alerted of his approach and move out of the way, he had expletives locked and loaded.
In addition to the coronavirus, something sinister is spreading as we gain greater and greater social distance from each other — anger and anxiety. And each often gets expressed as aggressive words or behavior — sometimes even violence, sadly. We are no longer relating to each other face-to-face on as regular a basis, and that distance has made space for an erosion of kindness, civility, and patience. Some (just some) of the “teachers” among us — the ones with lots of articles to share and best practices to disseminate, have forgotten that they’re speaking to peers — not imbeciles or children. Rather than trying to be helpful or educational, they are trying to control. And they are doing it as if they have authority (or credentials) that they do not possess. Their tone is combative, condescending, imposing, or impatient from the onset. That lit fuse often leads to an impromptu and emotional exchange of ideas. Debates then quickly degenerate into name-calling. Once that happens, a productive outcome becomes nearly impossible. Everyone’s message is silenced by the noise of the fight.
We have been called to socially distance ourselves from each other, but that does not mean we emotionally distance ourselves or pull away from direct, calm, respectful, loving, or patient discourse. We can be honest without being hateful or antagonistic. We can emphasize without exploding or scolding. We can’t treat everyone we disagree with like a child to be reprimanded for eating cookies before dinner or drawing on the walls with permanent marker. This is a time when, although we can’t congregate, we still need to come together. Even though we can’t hug each other, we still need to uplift those who are sinking into depression, poverty, or panic. We cannot let a virus inoculate us from our humanity — our compassion, our generosity of spirit, our ingenuity, our love, or our friendships.
So, this is just a gentle (but firm) reminder to mind your tone when you are speaking with someone — even if you disagree with him or her — even if you can’t help but judge. When someone acts in an impolite or angry manner towards you, extend some grace and remember that fear is probably the true motivator running underneath it all. That doesn’t mean you simply accept their bad behavior, but let it stop you from adding to it with your own. Both your message and your delivery are important. Don’t type something you wouldn’t say to the other person’s face. And don’t say to someone’s face anything you wouldn’t say to your grandmother or any elder you respect. In fact, I dare you to say something nice, because we all need to hear it. And while you’re at it, go donate blood. There are people who really need it.
Everyone is carrying different burdens right now — mental, health-related, financial, emotional. You have no idea what realities the people around you are going home to — so give them the benefit of the doubt and remember that we’re all doing the best we can with the resources we have. People possess different levels of fear, faith, information, and understanding. We will not get through this with our sanity, communities, and friendships intact if we forget how to act. Social distancing doesn’t mean we stop being civil, polite, patient, or loving. It is meant to be a physical separation — not the killing of kindness or the end of empathy.
This piece also appears on the blog Write Away.