There's a phenomenon that I refer to as “public restroom mentality.” I’m going to let that sink in for a minute without getting too explicit. Right. So think of the last time you were in a public restroom and let your mind run with that. There’s a certain sense of a lack of personal responsibility in a public restroom. People can leave it as dirty as they want because they know that someone else will be cleaning it and they don’t know the person who will be using it after them. Different than in your own home or a friend’s home where there is a certain expectation and responsibility to keep things a certain way. My guess is that most of us wouldn’t leave paper-towels all over the floor in our friend’s bathroom, our mother's bathroom, and certainly not our mother-in-law's bathroom. So when I refer to this phenomenon what I am really referring to is a psychological disconnect from ownership of something that allows a person to care less about the impact of his or her behavior. Another good example would be parking without making sure that you’re not in two spots. After all, you’re not thinking of the next rushed person, late for a meeting, who is going to pull on to that block, think she has a spot, and then with a sinking heart realize that she is blocking someone;s driveway because the person in front parked in two spots. Yes, that was a good to honest piece of self disclosure for those who are wondering- my heart generally sinks at least once or twice in the course of each time I need to park. Now, if you knew that that person looking for the spot was going to be your mother, you might make sure to pull up all the way and leave the next spot free.
Then there is the opposite effect. A few years ago I rushed on to a train platform as the train was about to pull away. A teenage girl saw me and actually stood between the sliding doors to keep them open so I could get on. I breathlessly thanked her and sat down. This happened a few years ago but I still remember the rush of warmth and gratitude I experienced at the time that a stranger cared enough to do that for me. It gave me a sense of kindness in the world. A sense that there are people out there who think of others despite the rush of their daily lives. Because the fact of the matter is that we do impact each other a great deal, even those we just cross paths with. The security guard at your office. The customer service representative at your GE appliance warranty. The assistant at your toddler's daycare. These are all people. Your comments, or lack there-of, your tone, your facial expressions- they all matter. We are responsible for the ways in which we impact the lives of others, for better or for worse.
As a therapist I'm often privy to tales that indicate the power of a small word or deed. Like the girl working behind the counter at a busy diner, who smiled at the young woman with social anxiety and enabled her to order something on her own in a restaurant for the first time. Like the first grade teacher who was over-enthusiastic with her use of her red pen on the little girl's assignment. That girl still shudders when she has to write something. Like the delivery man who went the extra step to carry the boxes up the steps for the young, expectant, overwhelmed mother. Her kids had a calmer bedtime that night and she even read them an extra story.
Like the teacher who complimented my writing in 6th grade. I started publishing because of her.
So here's to seeing the people we pass in the course of our busy lives, as people who we impact. Here's to recognizing the power we have in our hands and in our words. And here's to throwing out our paper towels the next time we use a public restroom. It's got to start somewhere.
Tzipora Shub, LCSW works as a supervisor at the JBFCS adolescent clinic in Flatbush and in private practice.