OPINION – Civility is becoming scarce. Not just in political or social media discussions but also in virtually every area of modern life.
It’s a trend that began long before the Supreme Court wrote the American public a prescription for rainbow-colored corrective lenses.
Online insults or the angry middle finger salute of a passing motorist are symptoms of a larger problem than simple lack of manners or morality. They represent a growing loss of empathy – the ability to understand how another person feels.
We’re losing our capacity to put ourselves into the other guy’s shoes. This places us at risk of falling into what Alexander Solzhenitsyn referred to as a type of “moral mediocrity” where our noblest impulses are dictated by the limits of what’s legal.
The real test of whether we are capable of understanding another comes when we encounter real differences. If we reflexively resort to demonizing those with whom we disagree, we become little more than savages who lash out at whatever frustrates us.
Quarrels, criticism and disagreement are unavoidable. However, how we choose to handle them is fully within our control. It simply requires strength of character.
For example, my friend Eric Moutsos recently shared an incident from early in his career as a police officer. He and his partner were called to a scene where a parking enforcement officer was preparing to have a man’s van towed away for unpaid parking tickets.
The meter maid was smug as she informed the increasingly irate man, “You can run but you can’t hide.”
Moutsos watched as two car seats and two booster seats were removed from the man’s van while the tow truck was summoned. He learned that the man had been ticketed outside the nearby homeless shelter where he and his family had been living for several weeks after losing his job.
The man was several days from beginning a new job that would enable him to move his family from the shelter.
In the meantime, what few possessions the man’s family still had were stacked on the sidewalk and could not be taken into the shelter. He stood to lose his vehicle and his family’s stuff.
Moutsos saw the desperation and frustration in the man’s eyes as the tow truck pulled up and realized that, under the law, the city had legal justification to take his van. He caught himself beginning to demonize the man by thinking that, somehow, this guy must have done something stupid to deserve losing his job.
It was this recognition of how we demonize others when we’re being demonic that shifted my friend’s thinking.
The meter maid smiled as she kept reminding the distraught man over and over, “It’s the law,” as if that were all that mattered. But the two police officers had finally seen enough.
It was Moutsos’ partner who spoke up first and instructed the tow truck driver to unhook the van. The parking enforcement officer began yelling that this wasn’t the police officer’s call to make.
After a brief telephone powwow with the meter maid’s supervisor and the two officers’ supervisor, a livid parking enforcer ordered the tow truck driver to unhook the van. She glowered at the two cops and informed them that she would find the van when they were off-duty and impound it then.
When the tow truck driver said that he would need to be paid for his services, Moutsos’ partner offered to pay him personally for any inconvenience. Meanwhile, Moutsos quickly contacted the manager of a nearby hotel and gained permission for the man to park his van on their private property for a few nights.
Parking enforcement could not legally touch his vehicle there. Upon learning this, Molly Meter Maid sped off enraged.
Had all the parties involved simply gone by the letter of the law as the sole determinant of what really mattered, the situation of the homeless man and his family could have gone from bad to worse.
Thankfully, these two police officers were men of conscience and integrity. They understood that legal is not always synonymous with right. They were able to put themselves in the shoes of the frustrated man and realized that they would have felt exactly as he did if they were in a similar situation.
The path of least resistance is the one followed by the parking enforcer. From her supposed position of mild authority, she could not see the man or his family as anything other than objects in a “game” she was winning.
Having empathy towards others can quickly teach us that the best in us isn’t defined by legalities.
Bryan Hyde is a radio commentator and opinion writer in Southern Utah. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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