June 2016

Line in the Sand: Are People Just the Worst?

Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson

Opinion 1: Barry Kaufman

I really do try to see the best in people, I promise. Every day I greet the morning with a replenished well of optimism from which to draw, ready to work together with my fellow human beings to create a better world. For that brief window of time, I am at one with my brothers and sisters in this life, beautiful individuals they are. I wish the best for them and hope that they wish the best for me. Then I actually encounter another human being, and it all falls apart. Because people are just the worst.

I should couch this with the not-insignificant fact that I work from home. Generally, the people I encounter are my own family, who are almost always the exceptions to pretty much everything I’m about to write about how awful people are.

But sometimes I do have to leave the house, for whatever reason, and it seems I can’t get 10 paces outside my own door without encountering how deeply rotten some people can be. You’re probably assuming I mean “at driving,” and you assume correctly.

Literally, I never spend more than 15 minutes on the road during any given trip; but in those short trips, I nearly always see somebody just disregarding the laws that we as a civilized society have agreed upon for the benefit of all: jerks weaving in and out of lanes for the sole purpose of arriving at their destination 30 seconds earlier; people careening around the Bluffton Parkway traffic circle without taking two cotton-picking minutes to read the signs that are up everywhere telling you how it works; people puffing away on cigarettes in their car, the sad-eyed toddlers in the back seat slowly developing asthma.

And then we come to my encounter the other day with a guy who completely shattered any illusions I nurtured that people have even a shred of decency in them. I was at Belfair Towne Village, and if you live in Bluffton, you already know what happened. For those on the island, I’ll explain. Belfair Towne Village has a kind-of-complicated-but-not-really four-way stop at its entrance. While two of those stops are two lanes, they basically all follow the same rules: If you are the last person who pulled up to a stop sign, you are the last person to go.
In the normal run of things, a four-way stop is a great way to restore your faith in people. We’re all trying to get somewhere, but a four-way stop forces us to take even a slight moment out of our day to think about other people. It’s the social compact in action.

Unless you’re a total jerk, like the aforementioned guy who, seeing me partially across the Belfair Town Village intersection in a vain attempt to drive somewhere, paused his Chevy Land Cruiser Smog350 (special “Rolling Coal” edition) ever so briefly at the stop sign before gunning it through the intersection inches from my hood. Naturally, his brazen disregard for public safety triggered an involuntary spasm in my finger, and when we both reached the red light at 278 (right next to each other, which shows how much time he saved), he opted to roll down his window and engage me.

He asked if I had a problem, and indeed I did. He’d seen me in the intersection and chose to gun it past me despite the fact that two cars running into each other is exactly how every car accident happens.
“Yeah,” he told me. “But I figured I could beat you.”

The words nearly snapped my head back. Think about what him telling me that means. Some stupid primate chunk of his gray matter was willing to risk his own life and property for an extra two seconds at the next red light and the pride in having “beat me” across the intersection. In eight words, this guy managed to encapsulate every horrible, selfish, unthinking impulse of humanity. To see someone not just treat others with such contempt, but to do so for no reason than the thrill of being a jerk… it becomes really hard to see the good in people after seeing how terrible they can be.

Yes, there are worse things than cutting someone off. There are murders every day. There is racism; there is genocide; and there are people trying their best to be Kardashians everywhere you look. But this was so unnecessary. This was inhumanity for the sake of inhumanity. It’s a horrible thing to see up-close.

I’ll leave you with a thought from the great philosopher Sylvester Stallone: “If you think people are inherently good, get rid of the police for 24 hours and see what happens.” 

Opinion 2: Courtney Hampson

This is a story about one of the kindest people I know.

I met him about 18 months ago. I was writing a story, and he happened to be there. I don’t know why, but he told me his life story. He had a hard childhood. His young mother was abusive, physically and emotionally, locking him in closets when he didn’t read well or if he spilled a glass of milk. His father, a saint, worked hard, built a business, provided. One night he heard his parents fighting, and he walked into their bedroom to find his father pointing a gun at his mother. He shepherded his mother out of the room, as only a child could protect a mother, and told her she should leave and not come back. And she didn’t for a long time. He still calls her the “Gypsy” for how she faded in and out of his life for decades. Only recently, 40 years later, has he found some peace there.

He fell in love. Married his love. Had a son. But could never quite shake his past. His fear of being a bad parent, no doubt a result of his childhood, ultimately ruined that marriage. And for 18 years, he never quite shook the guilt—guilt for something that was long forgiven by his ex and never even noticed by his son, who when asked to describe his father in three words said, “Dedication despite distance.”

He rushed into the next marriage. Was cheated on. Manipulated. Taken advantage of. But he stayed—determined to do the right thing. Eventually though, even the strongest of people get tired.

When he chose the fire service as a career at 20, it provided focus. Every third day, for the 29 years since, he has gone to work, willing to risk his life for others. A selfless act? Or an attempt to block the demons from entering his brain, at least every few days? He’s seen some pretty horrible things there too: dead children, decapitation, suicide, violence, abuse. And I know those images haunt him. I know because he is still able to tell the stories, with startling detail, as if seared into his brain, like they happened yesterday.

Behind his crystal blue eyes, you can see the clouds—the shadows of his past. And when those clouds come, it can be scary. You wonder, what is he thinking about? Why can’t he shake that memory? Will he ever? And sometimes, you ask, “Did I say something wrong?”

And then, a smile. His double dimples appear. He immediately puts others at ease. He is warm. And helpful. And genuine. And makes you laugh too—with other stories. Like the time as a young recruit he raised the flag at the fire station, only to be told an hour later that it was flying upside down. Or when the fire truck caught on fire. Or when he drove his car into a ditch during his driver’s test. Or walked into a door trying to impress a girl. He laughs, too. Until he is haunted again.

What makes someone who has suffered and seen so much—kind? Why would he offer to help a stranger, even on his day off? Why is he willing to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out? Why does he stop when he sees someone stuck on the side of the road? Why does he hold the door, every time? Why does he remember the small things that can make another’s day special?

Should he be good?

Probably not. But he is. We’re all inherently good until something happens that makes us not. We make choices every day. We let our past ruin us. Or we learn from it; and even if it haunts us and still hurts us, we still try to be good.

I know this reads like a love letter to a man who should have been a stranger, but when Barry proposed this topic (after suffering a rough day and telling me, “People are just the worst”), he was the first person that came to mind.

I saw this quote last week by Earl Nightingale: “We become what we think about.”

What if we all chose to think about being good? 

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