Casual Cruelty


Today I managed to get flipped off not once, but twice, by a 70-something-year-old man on my way home from work.

I am by no means a perfect driver, but I do opt for safety rather than speed most of the time.  In fact, the only criticisms I have gotten on my driving is for driving too slowly (*cough* going the speed limit *cough*) or “like a grandma” (including one time BY my grandma… she had a lead foot, oh boy).So, I’m about halfway home from work, driving comfortably in the right lane.  I’m about halfway past the car on my left, when suddenly he realizes he needs to make a right turn and puts on his signal.  My choices are to slam on my breaks to let him in, potentially causing an accident, or to speed up and get by him quickly so he can switch lanes behind me.  I choose the later.

And as he switches lanes behind me, I glance up in my rear-view mirror and see this man flipping me off.  I tense up as I feel the New Yorker in me rising to the surface.  I resist the urge to flip him off in return.  After all, what good will that do?

As I approach the stoplight, I notice the man who flipped me off is now on my right in the turn lane, stopped waiting for the light as well.  I look over at him and he flips me off again.  Now I can tell he’s older, probably late 70s, and looks incredibly grumpy.  I’m still not sure why I’m the target of his ire, it’s not like I cut him off to did something to prevent him from coming into my lane.  Trying to apply logic to the situation is probably foolish.

At this point, still repressing my urge to get angry in return, I roll down my window.  I actually have a question for him.  He sees me roll down my window, shakes his head, and refuses to look in my direction until the light changes and he speeds away.

In retrospect, I’m not really surprised he refused to engage me by conversing, instead of with hand gestures.  After all, if he talked to me he might be forced to admit that I’m actually a whole person who probably didn’t mean to piss him off and probably didn’t deserve to get the bird flipped at her twice after an excruciatingly long day at the office.  As long as he doesn’t talk to me, I’m just “some asshole” and he can feel justified in however the hell he’s feeling.

We all do that a lot, especially when driving.  People are reduced down to their driving ability and it’s painfully easy to label people as “assholes” and “maniacs” for not driving the way we want them to or in a way that inconveniences us.  Person cuts you off? Asshole.  Someone is driving twice as fast as you are? Maniac!  Person doesn’t run the yellow light and you wanted to? Douchebag.  I could go on.  And I’m just as guilty.

In college, my best friend made a point of trying to teach me the difference between “being” and “acting.”  It’s a simple concept which we forget often, namely that you can behave like a thing without being that thing.  So in this case, you might driving like an asshole, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily ARE an asshole.  It certainly goes both ways, too, so giving money to charity doesn’t magically make you a wonderful person.

Some of you may be wondering what I was going to ask the man, if he’d rolled down his window as well.  He probably would’ve taken it as provocative rather than sincere, but I’m genuinely curious… “Did it make [him] feel better?”

Because I’ve gotten in some bitch contests with other drivers on occasion, and I’ve always left the situation feeling not only angrier, but far, far stupider than before the interaction.  Having learned to drive in New York, it took all my will power not to flip the guy off, but in the end I’m proud of myself for resisting.  I’m just still curious if flipping me off left him feeling better.  If so, great!  If not… then why?

Why do we exchange these acts of casual cruelty with complete strangers?  Flipping people off, cussing them out, getting into pissing matches online and off… why?  What purpose does it serve?  As far as I can tell, it doesn’t make anyone feel better, no matter who started it.  Even small, seemingly insignificant acts of cruelty can have very large impacts on people.  We don’t know what anyone else is going through on a particular day at a particular time.  Maybe that “asshole” cut you off because they were preoccupied with their cousin, who’s in the hospital dying, and legitimately didn’t see you.  Maybe that “maniac” just went into labor and that’s why she’s speeding.  Maybe that “douchebag” is a student driver, driving with their instructor for the first time, who’s now afraid to get back in the driver’s seat because you cussed them out.  Or maybe they’re just an asshole.

My point is simply that we have no way of knowing what’s going on with complete strangers and why they act the way they do, but more often than not they have a reason.  What’s completely senseless is the cruelty we fling around for the most tiny, often accidental, acts of provocation.  I know someone who got attacked once because the person he was speaking to didn’t know what an “oxymoron” was and thought he was being insulted.  I mean… REALLY?

Here’s some food for thought: How often have you been cruel to someone over what was probably just a misunderstanding?  More than you know, I’m certain.

I’m admittedly having one of those days where my faith in humanity is sliding quickly downhill, even before grumpy dude (who is not nearly as amusing as grumpy cat, let me say) decided to flip me off for absolutely no reason.  But his anger was a reminder to me how easy it is for us to be unkind to others, and then forget all about it.  But trust me, the person you were unkind to hasn’t forgotten.

So, if it’s easy to be cruel… why not be kind instead?  It’s easy to be kind, usually.  And usually just as easy as it is to be cruel.  But small acts make a big difference to people everyday.  So if you’re going to do something small, make it something small and kind.  Your kindness will not only be remembered, but multiplied.

Let’s put an end to casual cruelty, one small act at a time.