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You’ve seen the signs.
In medical offices, bank lobbies, and libraries desperate managers have put up posters begging grown adults not to act like two-year-olds. Or professional wrestlers. They’re trying to head off meltdowns that lead to tantrums, name-calling, and even violence.
“We’re short staffed. Please be patient.” “Please refrain from vulgar language and violence.” “Abusive behavior will not be tolerated.”
How did it come to this?
It’s tempting to blame the pandemic. The months of isolation, social distance, and masking certainly didn’t make us any more pleasant to one another.
The Atlantic points out, “Crime, ’unruly passenger’ incidents, and other types of strange behavior have all soared recently” in an article titled “Why Are People Acting So Weird?”
Many of the experts they quote pin it on the pandemic.
A University of Wisconsin psychologist explains, “Not only are people encountering more ‘provocations’—staffing shortages, mask mandates—but also their mood is worse when provoked.”
People have been coping with frustrations by drinking more. And drug use has increased too. That fuels some of the bad behavior.
And then there’s WFH and everything from grade school classes to church services moving online. A Harvard sociologist told The Atlantic, “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened.”
A New York Times piece focused on pandemic-era interactions between customers and employees at stores, airports, and restaurants.
“As with so many things in the pandemic,” writer Sarah Lyall says, “It was clear that reality had begun to shift, and that what once would have been horrifying — this outpouring of rage against a backdrop of constant, low-grade mistrust — had become the new normal.”
Our pandemic experience turns up in a lot of the talk about Will Smith hitting Chris Rock at the Oscars.
Bloomberg’s Chris Bryant wrote, “Such unruly behavior has become alarmingly common since the pandemic.”
“People have become angrier and more reckless. Tempers are fraying and empathy has given way to irritability and intolerance. We’ve forgotten how to be civil to one another. It’s time we relearned how to behave.”
A producer who worked with Smith on “Concussion” was stunned. “He was always exquisite. I think he’s part of the collective breakdown we are all having.”
I take their points, all of them. Yes, the pandemic created social isolation, fear, and upheaval. Yes, some public figures exploited that for their own political benefit. And yes, some people played right into their hands.
Some, like The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan, believe all the anti-social nonsense will resolve itself as COVID case numbers continue to drop. “Improvement may be slow,” she writes. “But experts think human interaction will, eventually, return to the pre-pandemic status quo.”
I’m not so sure. Seems to me, something was brewing even before life-as-we-knew-it ended in March, 2020.
The picture you see above this article? The one warning against verbal threats or acts of violence?
I took it in the lobby at a healthcare facility in the fall of 2019.
Anti-social bad behavior was causing concern well before the coronavirus sparked stay-at-home orders, office closures, and mask mandates.
Was it political polarization fueled by self-serving government and media types? Economic challenges confronting huge numbers of Americans? Planetary influences? Who knows?
What seems clear is that merely taking off our masks, going back to the office, and eating in restaurants again isn’t going to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
And waiting for someone to lead us out of all this free-floating belligerence? Well, we could be in for a very long wait.
I say we don’t have time for that. We need to be our own leaders, each of us, and all of us.
As I pondered how to put this piece together, a song was running through my mind. Maybe you’re familiar with Jana Stanfield’s “All the Good.”
It’s true. I cannot do all the good that the world needs. And, if there were ever a time when the world needed all the good that I can do, the time is now, don’t you think?
I admit, I get discouraged when I start scrolling through the news, and I do way too much of that. The war of words in Washington. The actual war in Ukraine. The screaming at school board meetings and airports. And I can’t do anything about any of it.
What can I do? I’ve been writing thank you notes. To the auto mechanic at Lefty’s. The doctor at the immediate care center. The friend who pitched in on a project.
I know. You might be rolling your eyes. I’m rolling mine! A note. It’s not much. And, even if each effort seems small and insignificant, even if it’s a tiny drop of nice in a vast sea of mean and ornery, it’s what I can do.
And the world needs it, don’t you think?