By Tom Cardella
I am not a fan of self-help books. They bore, rather than inspire me. Yet, after 53-plus years of writing this column, I find this may be my first column to fall into the self-help category. The times that we are living in are very difficult, to be sure. Divisive times. Not the most divisive, at least not in my lifetime. The most difficult time to live in America for this columnist dates from the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated until the day Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace. We survived those nightmare years and that alone should give us the hope that we will survive the crises of today.
This column is all about coping in America 2017. You’ll pardon my wife for laughing at my posing as an expert on this subject because she’s seen me get in a dither when the 2 bus is late.
Actually, the 2 bus is not a bad place to begin in learning how to cope. For those of you who never ride SEPTA, just imagine being caught in heavy traffic with horns beeping and bike riders zooming in and out (more about bike riders later). I cope with SEPTA stress by being overly courteous. This means ignoring the annoyance of the person seated behind you who is indulging in a loud conversation on his or her phone. It means that If a passenger steps on your foot, you smile and apologize even though you’re not the offending party. Smile a lot. “Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking,” in fact. Note: your heart may not be aching, but your feet most certainly are. As you depart the bus, tell the bus driver to “have a nice day.” He or she may even respond by wishing that you also “have a nice day.” Both of you know the odds are long on that possibility, but just saying those words to one another makes both of you feel better about your chances.
The other morning as I left the Reading Terminal, I practiced my ultra-courtesy policy to good effect. I held the door open for seven people — an African-American woman and half a dozen police officers. The woman smiled at me as I smiled back. The police officers, every one of them, thanked me and called me “sir.” A small gesture, but imagine if that gesture spread between the police and the community. I warned you this isn’t easy.
Smiling a lot is not enough. Neither is being overly courteous. Dear cynic, you suspected as much. What next, you think? Drawing smiley faces on all the napkins in your local diner? No. The next step in the Cardella Coping Manual is tougher than that. It’s called empathy. You must try walking a mile (maybe even a mile and a half) in the other person’s shoes. I know that some of you have trouble walking a mile and a half in your own shoes, but seriously, listen up.
Take our current national debate over protests by professional athletes during the singing or playing of the national anthem. My wife’s Facebook page is exploding with outrage by good Americans who don’t want the flag disrespected. I understand your outrage. You love what our flag stands for. You see, that’s my example of empathizing with you. Here’s the good news that might help you empathize with the protesting athletes. They’re not protesting against the flag, despite what our president tweets. Note: My coping mechanisms require that you avoid reading the president’s tweets. Whether you agree with the method of the protesters or not, their intent is to protest those instances when rogue cops shoot unarmed citizens, almost all of whom are African-Americans.
It happens too often. And too often, the rogue cops are not punished for what amounts to an execution. Before you get angry, hear me out. Not all cops are rogue cops. My father was a cop and he definitely was not a rogue cop. I, too, support my local police, but not those police who act as judge and jury. Empathy requires us to realize that Lady Justice in this country does not always wear a blindfold. Sometimes she checks out the color of your skin first. As a white person whose father was a cop, I tend to see cops as protectors. But in a place where race can determine who gets stopped, just walking down a street or driving a car, an African-American person likely sees cops somewhat differently. Recognizing that fact doesn’t mean you have to agree with kneeling during the national anthem. But it helps you tolerate those who do. And when you’re tolerant, you are more than halfway to coping with the situation. That brings me closer to home.
Here in Philly, drivers and bike riders have become openly hostile to one another. Me? I’m just a pedestrian who feels threatened by both groups. The City could reduce the tension between the two groups simply by enforcing traffic laws equitably. Many bike riders already obey the law, but alas, some do not. They cut in and out of traffic. They fly through stop signs. When drivers do the same, they are ticketed. Ticket rogue bicyclists. Reduce the cause of hostility between the two parties.
Help the rest of us cope.