I will sometimes get irrationally annoyed while I am driving. I will be following the speed limit, and someone at the stoplight ahead will make a right on red, turning in front of me. And if I have to use my brakes, I get annoyed, and if the person who cut ahead of me is driving below the speed limit, I get angry. This person could have waited five seconds for me to pass, and then turned onto the road. They are now slowing me down. When this same person does not maintain the same lane as he is turning at the next light, I will be driving right on their back bumper, ready to hold down my horn.
God forbid this person has an Obama bumper sticker.
But then at the next light I change lanes and am pulling up beside this other driver, this object of my spite. I get a look at him, though we do not make eye-contact, and I can see in his face that he is worried. I feel remorse. I feel bad for antagonizing this person by tailgating him for 1.4 miles, even if he never noticed. I begin to make excuses for him, sure that is he dealing with the death of a relation, bad news from a wife who is packing herself a suitcase, or just on the phone with a boss who is no longer going to give him a paycheck. I can even understand how someone can become, through no fault of their own, deluded enough to support a politician.
Similar grievances happen at the grocery store. I am getting angry at the woman in line in front of me, because she has exactly four items, and she is going through a binder of coupons. I am in a hurry. My child keeps grabbing candy off the rack beside us, and I have nowhere to move. There is no reason for this to take so long, she is buying four boxes of generic pancake mix that are already on sale, why does this creature need a binder of coupons?
But the woman looks up at me and apologizes, was absolutely sure she had the coupons out already, gosh what a hectic day she’s been having, she is sure she has a five dollar bill in here somewhere, really sorry this is taking so long. I feel bad. I imagine this woman is taking care of her grandchildren because her daughter is addicted to FDA-prescribed heroin. She probably has little money, and is a professional coupon-er, one of those people who will sometimes leave with full grocery carts for $5. I respect this woman.
And I try to remember these things the next time I’m on the highway and someone is driving slowly in the express lane, while talking on their cellphone. I try to remind myself that I have little ability to imagine the driver as a person. I have not met that person, this driver who is slowing me down, he or she is nothing but a concept to me, a undefined placeholder for the human being who is driving this vehicle, slowly, in front of me.
I try to remind myself how little I view other people as actual human beings, especially those I cannot see or cannot speak to, cannot interact with – these people are placeholders, vague molds with no filling; bodies, without humanity. I know absolutely nothing about them, and my mind finds it difficult to fill these empty molds with identities, issues, emotions, circumstances, histories. Because my mind is focused on the here-and-now, or on my job, or my family, or what I should do with my hair before my brother’s wedding because I look homeless. I am unable to fill the thousands of molds of the individuals who cross the street without looking, slow down traffic, hold up the grocery line, take forever to return my desired book to the library… every day, a thousand reasons to be angry at and spiteful of a thousand different people – who would actually trust Donald Trump’s mouth? Why do these assholes spend $100,000 on these fucking Porsche minivans?
But I cannot imagine them. And if I met these people, I know I would begin to make one thousand excuses for them, and I would imagine their parents neglecting them, their classmates teasing them, their health insurance charging exorbitant fees and the pressures they feel from a society hell-bent on glitz and ownership of the glitz.
And I do not think this goes without saying, that imagination is the pre-requisite of empathy; that it takes cognitive effort, work, to imagine the life of a person I have no contact with. That, until I have met a person, until they have spoken to me and shown me the color of their eyes – until I am forced to see them beyond their immediate effect on my own person, I do not see them at all: they are only the effects they have upon me, superficially. I do not think this goes without saying, that our immediate, default perceptions do not perceive other people as human beings.