How Not to be Useful …

How Not to be Useful …

So, it’s snowing again this morning — and although I’m quite tired of snow, it’s a lovely soft morning — bit fat snowflakes, no wind, not too cold. So off for our morning dog walk I went — I’m babysitting the MH’s dog while he’s gone to Arizona for a couple of days and it was good to have 2 dogs with me again.

So we get to the dog park and we’re coming around the edge of the bluff and there’s another couple coming toward us. She’s on the phone, and he barely nods hello. I don’t recognize them, and they have that sheen of self-importance that we can all get. Whatever, we all pass and I can hear her loudly talking on her phone for a ways. But it’s a lovely morning and the dogs are romping in the snow and I just sort of wonder idly who the yuppies are. But as I come around toward the parking lot, there’s an SUV sitting there with the engine running. Again, it’s a car I don’t recognize, and as we pass one another on the backside I ask them if that’s their car that’s running. They tell me it is. I ask why. The woman tells me “because we were freezing.”

Now, here’s where I failed in this exchange. “Totally uncool,” I told them. “Thanks for polluting our dog park.” The man made some crack about his car being the least of the dog park’s problems and I sort of stomped away feeling all angry and stupid about the whole thing. But it made me mad. It’s bad enough to drive a big vehicle like that, but to just leave it running? Now those people knew better, I saw it in her eyes when I asked her why her car was running. But where I failed in the whole exchange was that I was annoyed by them in general. My inner Thoreau was outraged. I wanted to say that maybe if she put down the phone and looked at the lovely morning, maybe if she put down the phone and took two laps around the dog park that would warm her up, maybe if she put down the phone and turned off her car and was actually present that maybe we wouldn’t be in this fix we’re in, but no, I just made a snotty comment to the annoying yuppie types and missed the whole moment. Henry David was spouting bromides in my ear about chopping wood warming one twice and the false economies by which men value success, and frankly, my knee-jerk reaction was that I didn’t like these people and what were they doing in my park when they clearly didn’t know how to behave?

And so I got snotty. Not useful. But I do worry. These are the kinds of people who are supposed to know better than to leave their car running. These are people sort of like me — well educated, well off, professional. These are the kind of people who are supposed to be a part of the solution. And if as a society we can’t get over our own sense of self-importance to make even that kind of small change, to turn the car off, to pay attention, then what hope is there?

Michael Pollan asked exactly these quesitons in last week’s NY Times Magazine, in a piece called “Why Bother?”

Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer. I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

That’s sort of how I felt when I saw that car running this morning. On the one hand, it was just one car, it was only a few minutes, really? how much damage was it doing? Why bother saying anything? Why bother worrying about it? But in the article Pollan makes a good argument that yes, individual effort is worth the bother, and that even small gestures, when aggregated, can make a difference.

But I don’t think that was my motivation. I was just pissy. Somehow, the combination of the running car, and those two people who were so not present on a beautiful snowy morning beside the Yellowstone River really got to me. They filled me with despair. They annoyed me. I probably saw something of myself in them. And instead of reaching out, and perhaps effecting some change, I failed by indulging in self-righteousness and anger, which allowed them in turn to retreat to defensiveness and to dismiss me as some weirdo hippie (sort of funny, actually). Which does make me wonder how we’re ever going to manage to reach across these divides and effect some change if we can’t even have a civil conversation about a running car at the dog park on a snowy morning. Sigh.

5 thoughts on “How Not to be Useful …

  1. Even though the interaction you had with them left a sour taste in your mouth, they will likely think twice next time they’re in that situation. Sometimes people just need to be called out… humans can be such obstinate creatures. In the long run, I think you did more good than harm to my town– so thanks!

  2. I hope so — part of it was that I felt so bad that the day after Earth day there were these two people who SO didn’t get it, and part of it was that I felt bad for indulging in righteous indignation. I’ve been trying to get back to my (completely amateur) Buddhist practice, and well, it didn’t really feel like Skillful Means. But thanks …

  3. And maybe it’s better to actually say something than just to quietly seethe, as I’ve been doing for months when (a few) parents leave their (usually huge and often diesel) vehicles running while they bring their child into school. At least, as Ivy said, they might think twice about it the next time, whereas my general irritation could just be mistaken for bitchiness.

  4. Yes, there are days when I despair and I think “What’s the point?” and then I tell myself that I have to have a clear conscience and a pure heart when I meet My Maker so I carry on being as conscious and aware as possible

  5. I’m with you on this I probably would have reacted the same way and worried if there was a ‘right’ way to do it.

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