More: A Holiday Story (and a Request)

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Warning: (somewhat) gushy holiday story ahead.

A few years ago, just a little before the holidays, I was stomping through a grocery store parking lot. It was chilly, and it was crowded, and I was in the festive, stressed-out state many of us find ourselves in this time of year. As I was heading into the store, another woman was heading out, and for a split second, we made eye contact. So I smiled. I do that sometimes, for no particular reason. I reckon my parents done raised me right.

The woman then stopped me and said thanks, leaving me a little blindsided. She said she’d been duking it out with grumbling holiday shoppers for hours, and was relieved to have someone show some sort of human warmth. She told me I’d made her day. I wished her well and we both went on our way.

Before I let this story dissolve into a Hallmark movie of the week, I’m going to tell you that when I look back on that brief, positive encounter with another human being, I don’t feel all warm and squishy inside. I don’t feel like I make the world a better place, one smile at a time (ugh, hurts to even think stuff like that). To be honest, I’m a little disappointed and dismayed that a smile was all it took to make her day. People around her were acting so crappily that me turning up the corners of my mouth for a few seconds was the highlight of her afternoon. It’s not life-affirming, it’s just an indication that we’ve set the bar pretty low for our fellow human beings.

Have we really reached the point as a species that we hold a smile as a gold standard of kindness? Are we really so divorced from one another that anyone who acknowledges our existence in a polite way is seen as doing us a favour? Forgive me, but I don’t think we should be settling for smiles.

Humans, I am holding you to a higher standard. I expect you to stop honking at each other in traffic, and cutting in line at the drive-thru. I expect you to get over this fascination with dumping all over one another online. I expect you to stop uttering phrases like “those people.” I expect you to share what you have, be honest, be sensitive, to listen to what someone else is saying and to try and be reasonable. There will be no more marks for participation in the world. Your perfect attendance counts for nothing. You’re going to have to produce some decent work once in a while.

Okay, yes, keep smiling at other people. Smile at cute babies in strollers. Smile at old men playing chess in the park. Smile at joggers racing past you, and the lady who delivers the mail, and complete strangers who walk past you on the street. It’s all good. It’s just not enough anymore. Not even during the holiday season.

Yay and Boo: The Dangers of Extremes

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Anyone else watch “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoons as a kid? They were already “retro” by the time I got to them, but I gobbled them up, along with other stuff produced by the same studio, like “George of the Jungle” and “Super Chicken.” What I loved most about all of these series, and what sticks in my memory, is the use of townspeople as a sort of Greek chorus. They reacted to events in the episodes with a simple “Yay!” or “Boo!”, and when I say simple, I mean that they used a handful of voice actors unenthusiastically muttering”Yay!” or “Boo!” They were instantly either really in favour or something, or really against it, and their opinions could change at the drop of a hat. There was no grey area. As a kid, I loved its simplicity. In a five-minute, satirical cartoon, this kind of polarity was perfect.

Outside of those particular cartoons, however, this kind of knee-jerk extremes are a little scary. Scratch that. They’re a lot scary. We’ve become the cartoon Greek chorus, and regrettably, we’re exhibiting the same shallow aversion to subtleties. We stand on the sidelines and yell “Yay!” or “Boo!”, changing our minds by the minute. We either passionately love and support something, or we’re deadset against it.

If you want an example, log in to Facebook (other social media platforms will do as well). Pick a post, maybe something a little controversial, and read what people put as comments. Post something they like, and you’ll be showered with compliments. You’ll be lauded for your beautiful world outlook and generous heart. Post something even remotely unpopular, and you’ll be handed your tushy on a platter. There isn’t a whole lot in between.

A few things about this phenomenon are concerning. First, social media is put together with these nifty little algorithms that try to feed you stuff to which you’re likely to say “Yay”. Say “Boo” often enough, and the yucky stuff will start disappearing from your news feed. We all need a little “Boo” in our lives now and then. “Boo” makes us aware that not everything is meant to be “Yay.” “Boo” presents us with things that make us a little uncomfortable. It pushes us to think about things a little more. You take away the “Boo” and you take away growth, progress, reflection. You see where I’m going with this.

It’s also a little scary (okay, a lot scary) that everything in social media has to be either a “Yay” or a “Boo” in the first place. Okay, the spectrum of emojiis and response icons available to us has expanded over the past couple of years, but they’re still mostly about really liking or really disliking something. There isn’t much of a a “Hmmm….” option, no “Why?” or “Discuss.” What would your reaction be if you checked your feed one morning to find someone had stamped something you posted with a big ‘ole question mark? #confused.

The big worry is how all of this yaying and booing has translated to life outside of social media (yes, there is life outside of social media). We’ve come to expect the pendulum to swing all the way to one side or the other, becoming more willing to be ridiculously offended by something than being undecided or curious about it. If recent political events have shown us anything, it’s that we’re hopelessly devoted to being on one side or the other, so desperate for change has to be sudden, radical, and complete. Ironically, the word “extremist” has become a dirty term, even though most of us are guilty of it to some degree. We “like” before we look, and get defensive if anyone questions our hastiness.

So why were “Yay” and “Boo” so flippin’ hilarious in the cartoons I watched as a child? Well, comedy is built on the notion that what’s happening is just a little unrealistic, just a tad unbelievable or too silly to be true. Maybe, even as a kid, I somehow recognized that the comical reactions of the townspeople were just that- comical, not really meant to represent how the real world worked, or at least not how it ought to work. We’re not a cartoon mob, watching a jungle man crash into a tree or a feathery superhero save the world. More importantly, we get (and need) more than five minutes to decide if we’re going to yell “Yay” or  “Boo”, or if we want to yell either one in the first place.