My first job after college was in a large Midwestern, metropolitan area. When I changed jobs and moved back to Indiana, I immediately recognized three differences: (1) less traffic, (2) a slower pace of living, and (3) that people would look you in the eye and say “hello.” This last quality was the most surprising. I had not realized how much I had habituated to others passing by without acknowledging my presence.
Years later, while attending a conference in a large city on the west coast, I would take the bus or walk to get places. As I made my way down the sidewalk, I often tried to make eye contact with people I passed, either offering a smile or a slight nod. I was usually ignored, or I might receive only a brief glance. The only exceptions were the panhandlers who would catch my eye and saw me as an opportunity to score some money. I decided that ignoring others was an adaptive response for those living in populated areas where most of the people you meet are strangers. Because everybody acts that way, it’s also considered “normal.”
Recognizing how things worked, on subsequent trips, I readied myself for the panhandlers. When approached, I would strike up a conversation and then offer to buy the man a meal. I found that the discomfort I initially felt was now suddenly reversed. At least in the situations I faced, the other person acted awkward and confused. I suspect they’re not used to people responding this way because the average person doesn’t want to be bothered.
I just returned from another trip to the west coast that included a lot of driving on the interstate and navigating my way through busy city streets. I don’t think I imagined that people actually sped up to prevent me from making a lane change after I turned on my signal. And could all those people who opened their driver’s door as I approached their parked vehicle have been that clueless or did they just expect drivers to stop or skirt around them? I’m sure we’ve all experienced aggressive drivers who cut us off and weave between vehicles on the road.
On one occasion, it took me nearly an hour to circle a city block. A primary reason for the painfully slow progress was that vehicles would advance in the left lane to get around the slow moving traffic in my path. A local told that that’s what I should have done.
Life in the Country is Better…Or Is It?
I currently live in a rural area. I’m one of those annoying people who drive within the speed limit, and I frequently have people ride my bumper who probably wish I would either speed up or get out of the way.
It’s also not uncommon for me to brake at a stop sign only to find someone approaching from the right or left who rolls through the intersection without coming to a stop.
I don’t believe that people on the west coast or in big cities are inherently more rude and obnoxious than elsewhere, and I have found that folks are much the same wherever I go. They have the same emotional needs, desire meaning and purpose in life, the same tendency toward sin, and want to be valued and cared for by others. No matter where we live, we all have the same potential to act selfishly and show disregard for others. It’s just that in some places, the local environment and culture may create greater stress that calls forth an uncharitable response, and if everybody behaves that way, then it becomes typical or “normal” behavior, even if it’s not a healthy way to live. In just the short time I spent on my trip, I was tempted to act this way.
What’s My Point?
Christian disciples need to follow and imitate Christ everywhere they go. This means demonstrating kindness, generosity, equanimity, patience, gentleness, and respect. Behaving this way will cost us. It could mean that we’ll:
- Get stuck in a lane that doesn’t move.
- Become a target for others who consider us naïve and an easy mark.
- Be misunderstood by others who think we’re up to something.
- Take longer to get places.
- Be inconvenienced.
Acting out of step with our surrounding culture is not easy. You have to be intentional. But there are some advantages, too. For example, we may meet people and discover opportunities we would otherwise have missed. It also will help us grow in peace, joy, freedom, gentleness, humility, and gratitude.
When others treat us poorly, as they surely will, we should pray for them and not become angry, because while they may think of themselves as assertive and free to do what they want, they are, in fact, imprisoned. They are trapped in a self-centered cultural pattern and unable to act charitably toward others, and that is a sad thing.