Picture the scene: I’m in the grocery store (yes, again) and I’ve just gone through the self-checkout. I’m on foot; no car or bike waits for me outside. It’s pouring rain, I’m a good 25 minutes from home and my purchases don’t seem to fit in my waterproof backpack.
Because of the city’s ban on plastic bags, it’s either the backpack or a paper bag that will disintegrate before I’m halfway home.
I’m feeling uncomfortably warm, grumpy and in a hurry to get outside into the refreshing chill of the rainy day. I need to get these groceries into the backpack. NOW.
I spot a bench inside the exit doors where I might get some leverage while I try to repack everything, Tetris-style. Unfortunately, the bench is occupied from end to end by several people.
There’s a table next to the bench that has a bit of room on it and I head over there. I hoist my backpack, groceries falling out of it, onto the table and focus on the seemingly impossible task ahead of me. How is all of this – plus my annoyingly warm sweater – going to fit in this excruciatingly petite backpack?
I glance to my right. On the bench sits a young man who appears to spending the afternoon people-watching. He gives the impression of someone who has more hours to kill than weapons to kill them. I give him a doubtful look, and he begins talking.
“I don’t really have time to chat right now,” I say, cutting him off.
“Okay,” he replies good-naturedly. He says nothing more to me and, as far as I know, turns his attention elsewhere.
I continue with my stuffing and cramming and zipping. When it’s time to leave, I walk right past him and out the door without a backward glance.
Was I mean?
The Golden Mean
Surprisingly, I didn’t feel mean at all. I actually felt okay about my behavior, and even now I stand by it.
Sometimes I do feel mean even though I know I have a right to do what I’m doing. So it’s not like I think everything I do is fine. Quite the contrary; I can be tough on myself.
So why don’t I feel like I was mean to the guy on the bench? Two reasons:
1. I’m generally kind to people like him. Less than a week before, at the same store, I’d stood in the dried fruit section for a full 25 minutes with frozen items thawing in my basket, just so I could converse with a 95-year-old man who seemed lonely.
I know I’m a good person. I don’t have to keep proving it.
2. Serving the needs of others isn’t my responsibility. I like to meet the needs of others, but I also like to put myself first sometimes. I’m allowed; it’ s my time and my energy, to do with as I please.
Why should I force myself to have a conversation I don’t want to have, just because someone else wants me to? I never signed a contract to sacrifice my needs if they clash with someone else’s — especially a stranger’s.
Putting other people first must be optional. Otherwise it’s not kindness, it’s a compulsion.
Newsflash: You Aren’t Mean
Make up your mind right now: Are you a good person? Do you have the capacity for kindness? Or are you cruel and heartless (i.e., mean)? Take a moment to think about it. You know yourself pretty well. Which category do you fall into?
We both know that you do indeed have a heart. So you don’t have to prove it constantly.
When Irish Americans celebrate Cinco de Maio, that doesn’t make them any less Irish, does it? They know their heritage. They can freely celebrate the holidays of other cultures without losing their Irish-ness.
When you choose NOT to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own, you’re still Irish, too. That is, you’re still good when you’re not doing good deeds.
The fact that you choose to put others first someimes is enough proof that you’re not mean. You don’t need to do it every time. Remember:
If your good actions aren’t optional, they aren’t good. They’re just “nice.” And compulsive.
When self-sacrifice is your default setting, you live in a prison. The fear of being mean keeps you there.
You can break out any time by making up your mind that you’re already the good person you strive to be, and it’s not your job to serve others 24/7.
Then act as if it were true.
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