Paul Kengor: Observations on busyness & obliviousness
I sit in my car in a Starbucks parking lot. It’s a new Starbucks, a large lot, drive- thru. I wait while my daughter takes a music lesson down the road.
The scene at the drive-thru strikes me. I’m dumbstruck by cars whizzing in at 30 mph with 40 yards to decelerate to a halt. I wonder how they’ll do it without rear-ending the car stationary ahead. Not that the person in the car ahead is noticing. She’s looking at her phone.
The remarkable displays of deceleration take me back to watching airplanes land a week earlier as I flew from Pittsburgh to LAX. I hate flying. And yet, as everyone says, you’re safer in the skies than on the roads. My observations on this day in Wexford are further affirmation. In fact, any drive any day is affirmation. How the highways of America don’t resemble M.A.S.H. units is hard to imagine beyond spiritual explanations (i.e., guardian angels).
Jarring me out of my trance while staring agape at SUVs screeching to a halt at the drive-thru is a large black Yukon that suddenly appears in my windshield and looks to crush me as it slams still in the space next to me at a speed that makes no rational sense. I breathe a sigh of relief that I wasn’t just maimed and expect the driver to dash inside yelling “Dial 9-1-1!” Surely his child is on fire in the backseat. Nope. He sits alone inside his vehicle for 10 minutes before calmly strolling inside. No hurry. He’s just oblivious.
That brings me to my struggle and question in this column: What accounts for this kind of behavior endemic to modern America? We want to say it’s “busyness.” That’s partly true. But my sense is it’s more obliviousness than busyness.
As a case in point, my other observation from this Starbucks lot: Directly ahead is an outdoor patio where customers suck on their $5 drinks. Today, however, there’s something I’ve never witnessed before. There’s a man struggling to shimmy down the flagpole in the middle of the patio. He’s with a flagpole company (his work van says so). The poor guy adjusts, readjusts, loosens his gear.
What hits me most about the flagpole guy isn’t his behavior but those around him. Directly under him, sitting and sipping calmly at a table, is a man staring at his phone. The man is somehow unaware of the plight of the flagpole guy, including the bracing reality that if he falls, he’ll land on the coffee man.
The coffee man is clueless, as are the dozen or so patio people. As the flagpole guy sweats, the nonchalant people slurp.
They are, in a word, oblivious — to the point of outright insensitivity to the flagpole guy’s ordeal. Many of the drink-sippers probably ferociously launched their SUVs into that parking lot.
What’s going on here?
I submit it’s less a matter of busyness than obliviousness. I fear that’s what plagues our highways and byways and culture more than anything.
I don’t know how you fix this. But a big step forward would be for us all to break out of our shells, vehicles and screens, and pay closer attention to people around us. Respect them and their dignity. Don’t be too busy, and don’t be oblivious.
Paul Kengor is a professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith & Freedom at Grove City College.