I was on my Town Lake run recently, about 50 feet behind another guy, and as we headed down toward Barton Springs, a trio of twenty-something women decided to cross to the other side of the path just as this guy was passing them. He had to squeeze in between two of them to get by, and he said something to them as he passed. I’m not sure what he said, but as I then passed the trio, one of them muttered something like “He could have just gone around us.”
I bit my tongue, as my impulse was to let them know that they had been rude to block the very obvious path he was following. But it occurred to me that they hadn’t been intentionally rude— in that moment, they simply had no awareness of anyone but themselves. And if I could point to one characteristic of early 21st century American culture that I find most discouraging, it would be this one.
“Rugged individualism”. It’s certainly played a significant role in our history, for better and for worse. Being willing to go out on one’s own and take chances has surely led to many advances and no doubt increases the level of creativity in our culture; at the same time, it has also led to a lack of awareness of our impact on others– I’m sure American Indians could speak passionately to this. However, there are more subtle impacts that result from this lack of awareness of (and often outright disregard for) how others are impacted. Some examples:
- Building cheap structures that aren’t designed to last, leaving blight and eyesore behind.
- Buying large, gas-guzzling vehicles that pump carbon into the atmosphere without actually needing the specific functionality or capacity offered by these vehicles.
- Voting against public services that benefit many, but not oneself (at least not directly). One example would be people without children who don’t want to support public education, despite the obvious benefit of an educated, capable populace to all of us.
- Going back to the hiking trail example: walking three or four abreast on the narrow parts of the trail, forcing those passing you into the path of oncoming walkers and runners.
- Even something as seemingly innocuous as cruising in the passing lane at a speed that blocks drivers who want to travel faster, disrupting the smooth flow of traffic.
Even though many of us experience frustration when we’re on the receiving end of this kind of disregard, we still continue to engage in these behaviors. What many don’t seem to understand is that the right to “do our thing” should be tempered to the degree to which our actions interfere with our neighbor’s right to do his or her thing.
Clearly there’s no way to legislate or enforce the development of greater awareness of our impact on others. This can only come from self-reflection, and if we happen to be mothers or fathers, making an effort to raise this awareness in our children.