Monday, August 10, 2009

Lean on Me

I’ve always preferred taking a later lunch. Even though I’m usually ready to eat by 9:45am, depriving myself helps break up the day better, so when I return to my desk – on the verge of a food coma – there are fewer hours left for which I have to remain conscious. Plus, it’s a great way to avoid the crowds, allowing me to walk right up and place my order.

So I was disappointed the other day when I got to Subway around 1:30pm, only to find a line so long that it was snaking around a display in the middle of the store. But that disappointment was quickly replaced by anger because of what happened next…

I was patiently waiting my turn, when a woman walked in, clearly unsure as to where the line started. As she stood there for a few seconds, the man in front of me – who was at the apex of the “snake” – got out of line, creating a big gap between me and the next customer.

Suddenly, I was in no man’s land.

Before I could move, though, the woman stepped into the opening, killing the “snake” and extending the line towards the front door.

Now, if you’re at Subway, you’re doing one of three things: waiting, ordering or eating…it’s not a place you go to hang out or pick up chicks. And since I didn’t have a $5 foot-long in my hand, it was obvious what I was doing.

But this woman didn’t say anything to me. No “Are you in line?” No “Were you here first?” Nothing. She just re-routed the line to her advantage.

My mind began racing, dumbfounded by her actions. How could someone be so inconsiderate?

As I searched for an answer, the man who’d been waiting behind me did her one better, stepping around me to take his place at the end of the “new” line.


Not wanting to make a scene, I didn’t say anything and quietly got in line. I waited for one of them to turn around, so I could flash an are-you-kidding-me expression, but neither ever did. They were probably too embarrassed to make eye contact with me.

How could they not be? Being respectful of others is one of life’s basic lessons, something we’re taught from the moment we leave our mother’s arms and integrate into everyday society. As pre-schoolers, we learn how to politely coexist – to not hit one another; to share our building blocks; to not pour juice on our classmate’s nap mat.

But as we get older, these fundamental teachings often become secondary to the hustle and flow of our day-to-day responsibilities, and there’s no one to make us stand in the corner when we misbehave. Stressed out, pulled in 18 different directions, we needed to be somewhere five minutes ago, and we have no time to hold the door open or wave “thank you” to the driver who let’s us merge onto the freeway.

And it would be bad enough if our biggest crime was our failure to perform these simplest of social niceties, but it’s not. This lack of common courtesy is emblematic of a deeper lack of respect that runs to the heart of our humanity.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve lived a charmed life. The product of stable, loving parents, I won the birthday lottery, and I have never really wanted for anything.

While I don’t consider myself lazy, and I’ve been employed (on and off) since I was 16, I haven’t had to fight for my standing in society. I inherited it, benefitting from the hard work put in by the top of my family tree. All of the comforts and opportunities I have been afforded – from living in a nice house to graduating college to a white-collar career path – are largely due to the circumstances into which I was born.

It’s taken some time, but I am now okay with that fact. While I’m thankful every day for my good fortune, I’ve come to think – and hope – that pulling myself up from my boot straps to make ends meet isn’t one of the soul-evolving tests I have to pass in this life.

(There have been plenty of others to challenge me, like quieting the negative voice in my head and figuring out how “could care less” and “couldn’t care less” mean the same thing.)

But that only makes stopping at an intersection to see someone begging on the corner seem that much more unfair. Sitting in my foreign-made SUV, I look around at the luxuries within an arm’s length – my cell phone, my iPod, my golf clubs – and I’m embarrassed. The amount of money I spent on those items alone could feed a family for a month.

Giving the person some spare change feels like a feeble attempt at doing the right thing.

I guess this is the Darwinist effect of a free market society – some people thrive, some people dive. The social order sorts itself out.

But it’s troubling to me how low the lowest class is on the range of socioeconomic status. Yes, many of these people, through their poor or sinister choices, have put themselves in this position, but whether they “deserve” their plight or not, no human being should have to resort to holding a cardboard sign to survive.

Our society is drastically out of balance. It’s not a community…it’s a hierarchy. There is excess everywhere you turn, from the inflated contracts of professional athletes, to the 30,000 square foot mansions featured on MTV’s Cribs.

Nobody needs that much.

So I can’t help but wonder if, out of the goodness of our hearts, we each made the smallest of sacrifices to spread the wealth more evenly. What if a couple spent $45 on a steak dinner instead of $90? What if a young executive spent $40,000 on a car instead of $50,000? What if an oil company’s CEO took a salary of $60 million instead of $70 million?

Just think what would be possible if we kept a little less money for ourselves, and shared a little more with those who really need it. We could still lead magnificent lives, while helping to ensure that everyone is taken care of.

If we are all G-d’s children, don’t we owe each other that much?

Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with indulging in the finer aspects of life. Every person has the right to spend his money however he chooses. Working hard at the office allows us to do things that make us happy – playing golf, decorating a house, "making it rain" – and there’s value in rewarding ourselves for a job well done.

What I am saying is that it is time we make some adjustments. If we’ve learned anything from this past year, with its financial crashes and scandals and frauds, it’s that our standard operating procedure is not working. Driven by greed and a me-first mentality, when we step on the fortunes of others to get to the top, we all end up sinking to the bottom.

When I was in third grade, I started riding the bus to and from school every day. While I spent most of my time listening to inappropriate rap music on my Walkman, I do remember hitting pause long enough to take note of the sign that was posted up front, in a spot where every impressionable, elementary school passenger could see:

The Golden Rule
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Somewhere along the way, that message got lost, and we need to find it again. Too often we dismiss the inequality around us with a that’s-the-way-it-is shrug and go on about our lives. After all, we’re not the ones who have to wonder where our next meal will come from.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but if we each do our part, then little by little, piece by piece, we can create a world where nobody is left behind, and the biggest injustice anyone endures is waiting a few extra minutes for a sandwich at Subway.

1 comment:

  1. Another good read. Thanks.


About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?