Last month, after going to the drugstore for some medicine to help my wife heal from outpatient surgery, I returned to the parking lot and found myself blocked in. A car had encroached into my parking space, making it hard for me to get out.
I wondered what kind of thoughtless idiot would leave me in such a pickle. My problem seemed like a perfect example of the general decline in the nation’s intelligence, the downfall of manners, the end of civilization as we know it. How sad that the global collapse of virtue had now claimed me as its biggest victim.
At least that’s what I told myself as I stood in the parking lot with a small sack of pills, quietly fuming. In truth, I had little to complain about. My wife’s surgery had gone well, and she was on track for a full recovery. Thanks to the generosity of colleagues, I was spending the week at home, able to focus on her care. But none of this good fortune was top of mind as I furrowed my brows and stared at my SUV, which was sandwiched between two other vehicles and not, apparently, going anywhere soon.
Then a voice from behind broke my dark trance. “I didn’t do a very good job of parking,” someone quietly told me. “Let me fix it.”
Turning around, I saw a middle-aged man and his elderly father. The dad was pale, frail, unsteady on his feet, breathing heavily and hooked to a canister of oxygen. It was obvious that he was dying. “I’m not used to driving his car,” the son told me. “That was a bad parking job. I’m sorry about the trouble.”
I think I knew why the son was using his father’s car and not his own. When my grandfather was too old to drive himself, he liked for me to take him around in his car rather than mine. It was a way for him to feel he still had some claim on a familiar life as it slowly slipped away from him.
“You haven’t caused me any trouble,” I said. “This is no trouble at all.” I stood with the old man as his son backed out the car, then helped his father ease into the passenger seat before they left.
I asked myself why I had initially assumed the worst when judging a stranger. I was tired after a long day in a medical waiting room, but that seemed like a poor excuse.
In a broader way, our culture conditions us these days to automatically assign the worst possible motives to other people. Social media, in particular, is often an exercise in instant cynicism.
I can’t change all that, but I can change me. What I learned is that when you start railing against the thoughtless idiots of the world, the biggest idiot might be you.