Community & Fear

IT WAS THE USUAL order: summer rolls, tofu pad kee-mao, and chicken panang curry. Inside the air-conditioned Thai joint, the owner and I waited for my debit-card to go through as diners chatted and clinked their silverware. Thinking to myself that the owner must recognize me by now, I decide to start up a casual conversation. “How’s it going?” I ask. He replies with awkward laughter, then seems to realize that I’m actually listening for a response – “Oh, good,” he says, resigned, tired.

As I drive away, breathing in the palpably humid summer air and the smell of curry, I begin to contemplate the subtleties of my short conversation with the restaurant owner. He had seemed genuinely taken aback by my simple question – in a way that was almost familiar. Back when I worked at a cafe in Seattle (no, not Starbucks), the regular customers similarly balked when they could tell you were asking them questions you obviously didn’t care to hear the answer to.

Society-wide, our interpersonal relationships with strangers are degrading; on a small scale, evidence for this is found in that more and more customers at restaurants and business seem to treat workers as though they were a service rather than a human. A friend of mine, who also worked at a cafe, once told me of a man who walked in, looked at the menu, ignored my friend’s “Hello sir, how are you?” and then left. “It was like I was a robot he could just ignore,” my friend told me afterward.

Thinking back to the Thai restaurant owner’s reaction, it’s likely he was just unused to having normal discussions with customers. But how sad is that? Communities are made strong by when people who live near each other share the idea that their well-being is interlinked, and so naturally care about and are interested in one another.

Many things stand in the way of forming tighter community relationships – time constraints, suburban infrastructure, social awkwardness, etc. But I would argue that the common denominators are apathy and fear.

Indeed, from America’s urban centers to the war zones of the Middle East, we live in a time dominated by fear. When we consider the state of our “War on Terror,” the large-scale evidence for this is endless. The prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is one of the strongest examples – we have apathetically ruined the lives of hundreds of innocent people and their families because we got carried away by our fears. If we allow these attitudes to fester, we may find our future filled with the harrowing refugee camps of “Children of Men.”

All of this may seem disconnected to some, but it is tightly intertwined to me. If we don’t care about the person serving us our curry, how can we pretend to be able to empathize with people we’ve never met who are suffering on the other side of the globe? If we can’t build trusting communities on a small scale, how can we build good relationships between nations on the large scale? Change starts on an interpersonal level, and blossoms out from there.

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August 2007