I was on the subway recently, traveling from New York City to Hoboken, a pricey New Jersey enclave popular with well-paid young professionals who work in Manhattan. This subway system has a small sign in all cars reminding riders that the seats nearest the doors are courtesy seats. A gentle written reminder asks them to "please give this seat to an elderly or disabled person who is riding the train."
Well, this early evening, the train was crowded with holiday shoppers and travelers. One particular elderly woman, laden with shopping bags, entered the car, standing in front of an occupied courtesy seat. Two young professional couples occupied the courtesy seats on both sides of the aisle and saw the woman enter the train. This elderly woman, seeking a bit of rest, would look at their faces, hoping to get a sign of recognition and a seat. However, the couple immediately in front of her pretended to be sleeping as the train made additional stops (being a lifelong veteran of subway ridership, I know pretend sleep when I see it). Finally, after 4 more stops, the elderly woman was able to find a vacated seat in another part of the train. Instantly, the couple in the courtesy seats "woke up" as she walked away, and began sipping upon large Starbucks lattes they both held (amazingly without spilling) as they "slept". Clearly, they had willfully ignored the elderly woman, too selfish to surrender a seat.
Had I been standing closer as I observed this irritating lack of human decency, I would have gently reminded that young man of the wonderful opportunity he was missing to extend a small human kindness due this older woman. This seemingly minor drama spoke loudly of a selfishness and callous disrespect for neighbor that can be so easy to acquire in modern society.
At the same time, this incident prompted self examination. Am I selfish? Do I pass up opportunities to extend kindness to others? Truthfully, the answer is yes. We are bombarded with selfish messages and a culture that emphasizes self-fulfillment. Unless we willfully make the effort to consider the needs of others, we will be swept along with the me-first spirit of western culture. I've decided to learn from what I've observed. I have started asking myself, on a daily basis, what good acts have I done, especially for strangers. Doing so will remind me of the importance of developing a pattern of kindness in dealing with others. It takes genuine effort to fight being swept along in the sad decline in civility that attends modern life.