Tollbooth Operators, Crossing Guards and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mother Theresa has nothing on this woman. Image via blog.freepeople.comLongboat Key, Florida, where I hang out with my family every winter, is about an 1 1/2 hours from the Tampa airport.  On the drive, we pass through 2 tollbooths.  Growing up in suburban Chicago, these types of long, tollbooth-speckled drives were normal.  I decided as a child that working in a tollbooth would be the worst imaginable job:  performing a repetitive, mindless task while inhaling exhaust fumes.

My childhood assumptions have been replaced by an adult observation:  tollbooth operators seem inordinately happy—not just in contrast to my preconceptions, but happy in a standalone sort of way.  They are almost universally cheery, smiling and courteous.  This is not just a Florida phenomenon.  The Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the GWB, Midtown Tunnel and other Tristate toll plazas are filled with damn happy folks.  Sure, there’s a surly cop manning the booth every now and again, but for the most part they are courteous, pleasant and cheerful.

I walk 3/4 of a mile every morning to work through my fancy Brooklyn neighborhood.  I typically do it around 8:15AM, right as children are going to school.  My walk down Clinton Street takes me past a couple crossing guards.  Like the toll operators, these women (and they’re all women) seem preternaturally happy.  They know most of the names of both parent and child.  They seem untroubled by the weather, which is pretty damn cold right now.

On the walk I pass many well-dressed people on their way to work.  Perhaps they betray a different affect at work, but going there they look pretty miserable.  Few smile.  Most have sad or anxious eyes.  If I smile or look at them, they don’t seem to know what to do and look away rather than smiling back.  Most of them wear headphones and/or are tapping away on their phones, sending texts or emails; their fixation punctuated by obligatory glances at the sidewalk.

I just finished reading an article by David Brooks in the New Yorker called “Social Animal.” The subheading is, “How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of life.”  The article uses an imaginary case study of a couple’s courtship and all of the neurological mechanisms that inform its development.  I can’t do justice to Brooks’s article, nor his argument (you should definitely read it), but I’ll tell you what I got from it.  It’s the same thing I get from seeing the smiling tollbooth operators and ebullient crossing-guards, people whose job is to interact with other people:  humans want and need to connect with one another.

This may seem like an obvious truism, but when viewed against the comings and goings of our lives, we might see that what we are most engaged in is separation.  There are the obvious ways we separate like headphones, computer and TV screens, living alone, large houses, sunglasses, etc.  But there are the not-so-obvious ways we separate ourselves like ambition and the need to distinguish ourselves from others, gossip, vanity, intellectual pride (or any other type of pride), etc.  All of these things are ways we create separation from our fellow humans.

The topics of connection and separation seems particularly relevant on Martin Luther King day.  MLK said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Most of us are principally concerned with our individual concerns.  Most of our thoughts and actions are devoted to letting one another know how smart, pretty, rich, stylish, clever, spiritual, articulate, fill-in-the-blank we are.  Ironically, this is all done at the behest of our desire to connect.  Our logic—at least mine when I’m so disposed—is that we will make ourselves more important than others so they will think we are valuable and then they’ll need us and through that dependence we’ll connect.  We seldom go the other way, letting others know that they are important and valuable, that we like and need them and that we want to connect with them.

We take many stands for ourselves and what we deserve materially and emotionally.  We have expectations of how others should treat us.  We resent all the injustices perpetrated against us.  But we rarely take stands for others.  We rarely do what MLK did and make demands of ourselves on behalf of others—for how we must treat others with dignity and courtesy, for how we must continually show our appreciation and love, for how we must be generous.  These phenomena are borne out in the microscopic situations of my morning walk and macroscopically in a global economy where small populations gorge while large populations starve.

Yet all we want to do is connect.  That’s likely why tollbooth operators and crossing guards seem happier than brand-managers and VP’s.  Sure, there’s a lot of noise in these case-studies:  maybe the tollbooth operators are miserable when not working; maybe the brand-managers and VP’s are ecstatic on-the-job.  But I don’t think these observations are so easy to dismiss.  After all, why is it that the tollbooth operators do not seem mired in self-pity and unhappiness while working?  And if the brand-managers and VP’s are fulfilled by their material success, why do they seem so miserable when not working?  Connection is essential. When it’s an inseparable part of your life, all the better.

I think that all MLK was doing was connecting with people, urging others to do the same.  He was trying to remove the separating forces of discrimination and economic inequality so people could better connect with one another.

In the spirit of MLK, I’ve come up with 4 ideas on how we can connect today:

  1. Give whatever you feel you are lacking.  If you don’t feel respected, go out of your way to respect another.  If you don’t feel like you have enough time or money, give those things to another.  Be other-centric instead of ego-centric.
  2. Show appreciation for others.  Sorta corny, but tell someone how and why you appreciate him or her.
  3. Be friendly.  Smile at people.  Look others in the eyes.  If you have to force it, do so.  The real thing will soon follow.
  4. Give someone a chance who you want to dismiss.  MLK, as inspired by Jesus, believed in the axiom of loving your enemy.  Conflict will never be overcome by separation and more conflict.  Whether it’s an enemy or just someone you’d just assume not deal with, give him or her a chance.  Get to know this person, even if it’s just for a second.  This does not necessarily entail approbation of the person’s behavior.  It’s just connection.  Dismissing and ignoring is easy in the short-term, but life-draining in the long-run.  Giving people a chance takes some time, energy and creativity in the short-term, but is life-fulfilling in the long-run.

Choose to perform one of the above suggestions today.  Don’t do it merely to honor MLK. Do it to honor your psycho-neurological imperative.

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