Thursday, May 08, 2008

On Civility

Scanned image of author's US Social Security card.Image via Wikipedia
Today I visited the local Social Security office in order to offer proof in person that I had been born. My life has just entered a new phase, as I have formally enrolled for Medicare. Perhaps I should also be buying up stock in Depends adult undergarments, as the leading edge of the baby boomer generation is about to hit traditional retirement age.

The Federal Building is one block up the street from where I work. What I expected would be a fifteen minute round trip took an hour and ten.

First, I experienced the humiliating need to pass through a security checkpoint every bit as rigorous as at an airport, except I did not have to remove my shoes. The bottleneck was tended to by four unsmiling drones, all well-practiced in the arts of avoiding eye contact and mumbling canned answers. For me to exert the effort to speak a friendly word toward any of them would have been pointless and possibly viewed as hostile and suspect. The guards are worse than robots because beneath the storm trooper gear are human souls, lobotomized by careers in aggravating innocent people.

The older I get the more I believe in the value of politeness and civility. My attitude is much the product of theocratic training, I am sure, tempered by many years of contact with people who seem helpless in their quest to do anything more than merely to endure with resignation the circumstances of their tragic, grief-stricken lives.

While I cannot make anyone else's life better, at least I can avoid making it worse. Whenever I have contact with other people, no matter to whom and no matter where—the old man taking my five dollar bills at the parking lot at six o'clock on a miserable winter morning, the checkout lady and bagger at the grocery store, and especially the functionaries in a government office—I always am aware of myself making a deliberate effort to look each person in the eye, look for a name badge and address that person by name if possible, to speak clearly, to be friendly, to behave as non-antagonistically as possible, and to say a sincere Thank You as we part company, possibly never to meet again. I even thanked and shook the hand of the policeman who issued me a moving violation on my last day as an Arizona citizen for being kind and helpful in dealing with me after I almost got killed when I spun out going down a mountain road pulling a trailer. I'm sure that men in his line of work are not used to that sort of response.

Whoever it is, and wherever it is, I make every effort to disarm and to diffuse any possibility of confrontation, to convey the message from the outset: I'm sorry if you've had a bad day today, but I am not your next Big Problem. I will not be your enemy today. I am here to get your help, am grateful to have it, and when we're done, I'll say so, and be on my way. Furthermore, I do this in all sincerity, because I have learned that if you give people half a chance they will respond in kind.

Life is hard. Everywhere I see evidence of beaten humanity who have manifestly lived their whole lives unguided by meaningful standards of behavior.

Walking into the Social Security office was a shock. I expected a short line and to be in and out, like at a bank. Instead I encountered another personalityless and grossly overweight armed security person crushing his obviously uncomfortable chair at the entrance, a man whose only job seemed to be to monitor people coming and going, with nothing else to do other than be prepared to handle some elderly retiree who "goes postal," a real possibility in a government office. (An actual US Post Office is one floor below.) Do you suppose he ever gets a chance to shoot recalcitrant Medicare recipients with that gun?

He told me to take a number and sit down. He suggested that pressing number four on the keypad to the machine that spit out the numbers might be a good choice. So I did, upon which I received a faded A-54 from a thermal printer.

When I registered on the phone last week I spoke with a kindly man who led me to believe this business would be a matter of waiting no more than five minutes. It was more like forty minutes, during which I had occasion to observe the sea of agonized flesh around me, and was reminded of Jesus' words about feeling pity for the crowds that followed him because they were skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.

With the exception of one youthful, attractive, smiling couple, the man wearing a tie, the remaining population in the waiting room suggested that perhaps someone had dredged the Olentangy River and brought in whatever bottom-dwellers they found.

There were the usual complement of specimens from one- to two-hundred pounds overweight. There was a fat woman with tight clothing whose midriff hung comically out of her clothing. She was toting a toddler who had only one vocabulary word—an ear-splitting: "AAAAH!" shrieked repeatedly in a style reminiscent of Sam Kinison. There were the ones with their hats on sideways who spoke in plosive one-syllable words only they can understand. "Yo! Do! Ho Dey?" And there were the ancient ones, barely walking with the aid of canes, various body parts not functioning or missing altogether. There was one very black man accompanied by two women wearing religious garb that covered them from head to toe, leaving only their eyes showing out. One enormously fat man in his mid-twenties with glazed, baggy eyes wished everyone in the room a happy Mother's Day on his way out the door as an older woman led him out of the room by the hand. I hope he's been taking his meds.

Even the people in the booths behind the counter were typical of what I have come to expect in government offices—drones with utterly no apparent life. One woman called out numbers. She wore black horn-rimmed glasses, had hair that drooped down both sides of her face and curved under her chin, exposing only a narrow swath of her homeliness, which bore an expression that suggested someone had just planted a fresh pile of something extruded from the rear end of a dog on the desk right next to her, as she called out "B-ONE-EIGHTY-NINE!" three times before deciding that B-one-eighty-nine had left the building.

To be expected were the signs forbidding objectionable behavior, necessary because some people do these things at home and elsewhere, but that spitting on the floor and urinating in the corner is not acceptable in this dignified establishment.

I was fortunate to be called by a thoughtful woman who worked efficiently, was not unpleasant, and answered my clearly articulated questions. I believe I left her relieved that she did not have to confront yet another nut case today.

The appearance of the average Joe on the street these days has nothing to do with religion per se. But people don't get to look the way so many do today without a lot of practice. As I thought about it, I was reminded of what the prophet Malachi predicted about our day:
And YOU people will again certainly see [the distinction] between a righteous one and a wicked one, between one serving God and one who has not served him."—Malachi 3:18
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1 comment:

Mick Rice said...

Lynn,
Greetings from Galway, Ireland. I just wanted to say this post was a highly enjoyable piece of writing. I could identify with the picture you painted from a great many angles. Although I read your blog mainly as a fellow runner I also worked in the Irish civil service for seventeen years. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

Mick.