I was in the middle of the neighborhood used-to-be-IGA when I saw a fellow I had known forever but hadn’t seen in a while. He was a good man, and if he gee-hawed with someone, he’d stand by them until the end.
I greeted him warmly, speaking loudly across the produce, and asked how he’d been.
He looked up with a smile to see what friend beckoned him. When he saw me, his body language spoke before he did. His posture, his expression – everything tightened to a grimace.
“They bought you with a warm beer and a nickel steak,” he growled angrily, almost spitting the words. Then he stalked off. I never saw him again, and several years later he died.
I knew exactly what he was referring to, even though it had happened years earlier. We’d always seen the world through a similar lens. But there was a local issue he felt strongly about, and I suppose he thought if he discussed it with me, I would surely agree. I didn’t, and at some point I wrote an editorial in support of the initiative he so vehemently opposed. The issue was so far in the past that I’d wager no one else in the store that afternoon would remember the details of it, if they remembered it at all. But a glimpse of me among the Vidalias and Mississippi Reds was all it took to summon his deferred rage.
There was a time when I would have tried to mollify the man, calm him down and set things right if possible. After all, he’d been a family friend for much of my life. But in that moment I knew further interaction would’ve been a waste of my time and might have given him a stroke. I wandered over to the dairy case, lingering there until I was sure he’d gone before making my purchases and going on my merry way. By the time I got home, I was no longer thinking about the exchange.
I’m reminded of another brief conversation I had in the post office one day. I was standing at one of those tall tables across from the P.O. boxes when someone I knew came in. We exchanged hellos as he approached, and when he got to me, he slipped his arm around my shoulders and pulled me in, whispering in my ear: “You know, a lot of people who are nice to you really think you’re a real son of a …” He turned me loose and kept walking. The revelation made me laugh out loud. “I would say the same about you,” I replied jovially. I’m not sure what exactly he meant by it, but I took it as the recognition of a universal truth, and I have always appreciated it. In a civilized society, a person’s cordiality isn’t necessarily a reflection of respect for those they encounter, but more a glimpse of their own self-respect.
There’s an awful lot of conflict these days, disagreement among people we expect to be civilized, graceful, and dignified, but who behave viciously, violently, even murderously, on a scale that far outpaces the significance of the conflict. Clearly they have no respect for those with whom they disagree. Or for themselves.
Respect is a cornerstone of civilization, and the absence of it is the root of most of society’s recent ills. Clashes in the streets, pandemonium in school board meetings, heated exchanges in restaurants, fights on flights, and internet trolling – it’s all flagrant expression of disrespect by people who lack the self-respect to act like human beings.
Sometimes the better part of valor is to linger in the dairy section of the grocery store until the source of conflict moves on.
Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at dothaneagle.com.