If you try a little kindness then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets.
— Glen Campbell – Try A Little Kindness (lyrics)
Turning from 35th Ave. NE onto NE 110th St. takes me past Nathan Hale High School on my preferred route from NE Seattle to downtown. I started using this route during the summer when the only activity was an occasional practice on the field, so the increased traffic volume that came with the start of school took some getting used to.
The other day as I rode past the school, a woman clutching a 16-ounce paper cup stood with her son at the corner of 34th NE waiting to cross. The oncoming driver didn’t hesitate, even for a second. I slowed to let her enter the street, saying, “We’re all supposed to stop for YOU.”
She hesitated, made a move as if to go, then stepped back and waved me on, saying, “Sorry!”
I had meant my remark as a commentary on the driver’s behavior, not hers, but my tone didn’t do a great job of conveying that. She looked as if she felt guilty for slowing me, so I called back over my shoulder, “No, I meant that’s a GOOD thing!”
I rode another couple of blocks, thinking that I had left her with an impression of someone who didn’t want to stop to let her cross the street when I’d meant the exact opposite.
Couldn’t stand it. Circled back to find her, still standing at that same corner with coffee and son.
As soon as she saw me she started talking, saying, “I’m so sorry! I couldn’t make up my mind and I know that was annoying.”
“No-no-no, I came back to make sure you didn’t misunderstand what I said. I meant we SHOULD all stop for you and that guy didn’t.”
She said, “I realized that a second after you said it.”
I replied, “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t think I was one of those jerks who don’t stop for people.”
We both laughed about it and ended up hugging each other. She wished me a safe ride as I headed away, very glad that I’d circled back and thinking about how much we’d all benefit from a few more one-on-one human moments like that: taking a moment to give the benefit of the doubt and respond with understanding and kindness, rather than reflexively going away angry or annoyed. Taking the time to connect, not to assume.
Kindness is an undervalued virtue, in my mind. It somehow has a reputation as a “wimpy” response, when it can take far more discipline, more mindfulness, more internal toughness to respond with kindness, most especially when that’s not what you’re receiving from someone else. My mother embodied kindness and I think of my kindness reflex as one of the greatest gifts she gave me.
How often, when you’re in a traffic interaction, do you put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment and cut him/her some slack? How quick we are to judge someone and then from there it’s a short step to generalizing that behavior. Tell me you’ve never constructed a sentence in this format right after a negative encounter:
- “All drivers XYZ!”
- “Those cyclists never DEFG!”
- “Why don’t pedestrians JKLMN?”
In talking about kindness I know I run the risk of triggering a lot of comments about the people who “don’t deserve” that response. We want to push back, to stand up for our rights, when someone does something that endangers us on our two wheels. Part of our work at Washington Bikes is to stand up as advocates, working for laws that hold people responsible when they drive dangerously.
I’m not suggesting kindness in response to aggression or to harassment that targets you for one label or another. I’m not suggesting we don’t hold people accountable for distracted or inattentive driving — those penalties should be increased.
I’m thinking more of our personal responses to the thousands of daily acts of carelessness that surround us all.
Our work as advocates is intended to improve interactions on the street for everyone. When it’s safer and more pleasant, more people will ride. While we must change the laws, we won’t get kinder, safer, better streets using only the law as a tool.
Look at what MADD did about drunk driving and how they did it. They used a combination of tough penalties and a change in social norms. Austin rider Adam Butler is attempting to use a simple wave of the hand as a tool to change the tone of interactions between people on wheels and people behind wheels.
Most days if I’m paying attention I notice small acts of kindness on the streets — if I’m looking for kindness. If I’m looking for people to act like jerks and break the rules, guess what I’ll notice? Human nature being what it is, every single day offers me a dose of each. I figure it’s up to me to decide which taste lingers longest.
A little Glen Campbell to take you out, with those appropriate lyrics I stumbled across looking for things on this topic:
Related Reading & Viewing
- “On Kindness,” essay by Cord Jefferson: A beautiful piece that has nothing to do with bicycling
- WeWave, on Adam Butler’s effort to start a friendly movement
- Kindness, song by David Wilcox (turns out kindness is a theme in lots of songs — these are only a couple of those found along the way)
- Kindness, song by AcoustiMandoBrony
- What do you remember most at the end of a ride — the positive interactions or the negative ones?
- How do you think this would change if you consciously thought of kindness as one of the skills you bring to riding?