Saturday, February 23, 2008

Excuse Me

By: Eddy Chen

Sometimes I wish I could read people’s minds.

The other day I ran into a nearby grocery store to buy a box of tissue. Tissues are definitely one of those things that you take for granted, and frankly, I was tired of using toilet paper to blow my nose (2-ply is good, but still not soft enough for my delicate schnozz). As I approached the checkout aisle, I realized that this grocery store didn’t believe in user convenience, as in they didn’t have an express lane. And just my luck, the only two aisles that were open were occupied by people shopping as if they were preparing for some horrific natural disaster.

No problem. I’ll just walk up to one of the aisles and make it blatantly obvious that all I need to pay for is a box of tissues while giving them my friendliest smile

So I saunter up behind a reasonably friendly looking couple, hold my box of tissue up high (an olive branch in the world of checkout mayhem, I suppose) and prepped my mouth for action when it came time to bust out the pearly whites. But the two were too engrossed in loading their goods onto the conveyor belt, oblivious to the fact that I was patiently waiting for an act of benevolence on their part.

Realizing the dire straits that I was heading towards, I proceed to Plan B in order to get their attention. Now I’m not one to be so bold to ask strangers to let me in front of them in line just because I only had a box of tissues to buy (though in retrospect that probably would’ve alleviated the need for my smiling like a jackass). So I decided to do what any normal human being would do in my shoes… I coughed for no apparent reason (which coincidentally affirmed the box of tissues that I was thrusting upwards also for no apparent reason).

As I pretended to hack my lungs out, the lady in front finally stopped with the loading and turned around, at which point I magically stopped coughing. Out came the smile and more blatant thrusting of the box of tissues (my arm was starting to get sore). But it was all worth it because I was about to be rewarded with a stranger’s generosity and five minutes that I would not have to stand in line…

Nothing.

She said nothing. She looked at me. She looked at my smile. She looked at my box of tissues. Then she went back to loading her cans of green beans and boxes of Rice-a-Roni.

At that very point, I experienced a bevy of emotions… anger, frustration, embarrassment, bewilderment. At that very point, I wanted so badly to be able to read her mind. What was she thinking? What kind of person would act in such a way? But seeing as how I have no mind-reading abilities, I was forced to draw my own conclusions and derive my own hypotheses.

First off, I’m a strong believer of karma. Not necessarily in the metaphysical religious sense, but more in the laymen terms sense. I believe that when you do good, selfless things to or for others, good things will happen to you. Likewise, when you do not-so-good, selfish things to or for others, you’re destined to end up on the other side of the equation one day. What goes around, comes around. It’s the age old Golden Rule of life… Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

My take on the couple in front of me was not that they wouldn’t agree with my karmic beliefs. I’m sure if the roles had been reversed, they would’ve wanted me to let them cut in front of me. But rather, I think in assessing one’s own actions and how they relate to karma, there’s often a conflict of inequity that arises, namely “Why should I do something good for others when people don’t do anything good for me?” or even better “I try to do good for others and I still get screwed. Why even bother?”

For the couple in front of me, they saw no immediate gain for them by letting me go first. When push comes to shove, people are going to look out for themselves first. And then depending on how much time/energy/money/etc… is left, they’ll look out for others. It’s human nature, survival of the fittest.

Cynics will argue that almost all acts of kindness have self-serving ulterior motives. Students volunteer at soup kitchens to strengthen their transcripts and resumes. People donate to charities to get tax breaks. To break it down even further, people do good things for others because part of them wants to bolster their social image so that others will perceive them as the type of person who does good things for others. What cynics fail to realize is that the empirical instinct to do good and help others is in itself a powerful force that transcends hidden agendas.

The act of doing good should not stem from a meritorious mentality, at least not entirely. Regardless of the rewards that one might receive, one’s principles and fundamental understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong should also be taken into consideration when deciding what actions to take. In general, it’s easy to stake your decision on WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), but you still have to draw the line somewhere that signifies what is and isn’t acceptable.

If everyone lived by the Golden Rule, this world would be a better place. Sure, the Golden Rule does promote focusing on your self-interest; this is to make it convenient for people to practice their principle-based decision making. What the Golden Rule does not do is disavow the difference between right and wrong. When people rationalize their less-than-admirable actions (Hello, Enron and WorldCom), that’s when they blur the lines between right and wrong. Focusing on doing what’s right will lend to leading a life that increases your chances of benefiting from others doing good. But when you compromise your principles and act selfishly, all you’re likely to end up with is temporary gratification that eventually gets replaced by a harsh dose of the consequences of cheating the system of life.

In hindsight, the couple not letting me cut in front of them at the grocery store was nowhere near a cause for crying foul. Waiting in line for those additional five minutes did not alter my life in any detrimental way. While I wish they would’ve shown more consideration by letting me go first, I recognize the possible reasoning behind their actions and I don’t hold it against them. Hopefully the good in them will shine in other ways on other occasions.

Sometimes it’s a little risky to do the right thing. I feel better knowing that I’m not the only one out there willing to take these risks.

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