I volunteer two days a week, once at the local food pantry and the other at the local hospital, in the emergency department. Of the two, the latter is the more taxing, not just because it’s twice as long as the food pantry. On any given day, I’m in a lot of pain, between my back and my knees (the insurance company finally gave in and authorized my left knee replacement, hooray), but I wouldn’t want to give up volunteering for anything. The people in both places are great and the work is rewarding.
In both places, I work with the public. For the most part, the people who come to the food pantry are nice and do their best to be helpful. The patients in the ED, however, come in all stripes and flavors. Last week, I came across two women who defined the topic of this post. They were of similar age and complaint, but where one was kind and complimentary, the other… well, her nurse said it best: “she hates everybody.” Her husband was lovely, but when I went in to ask her if she needed anything to be more comfortable, the first words out of her mouth were complaints. She was too warm, the bed wasn’t comfortable, no one had been in to see her in hours (not true) and the president was an idiot. Her husband had given her (and several members of their family) Covid and she was still feeling the effects of it even though she was no longer testing positive for it. She hated everything and everyone in the ED and didn’t care who knew it. In her eyes, we were all idiots.
I did my best to placate her, but knew there really was nothing I could do. The other woman, just a couple of doors down, was so forgiving, kind, and respectful. Her daughter was with her and she was just as nice. When my relief came in I updated her and warned her about the problematic woman. She agreed that there was just no pleasing some people.
Why is that, I wonder? It doesn’t take much to be nice, and in my experience it’s often the people who are in the most pain who are the nicest (not always, of course, but often). My gram used to say “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” which is ridiculous, as who would want to catch flies? But the sentiment is there; be nice and others will be nice to you. It’s entirely possible that this culture of complaint is based in capitalism and its ‘get me your manager’ ethos—we’re expecting instant gratification and when it doesn’t happen (as it often does not), we get mad. We feel we deserve special treatment because… why? Because we’re white people? That’s my only experience so I have to imagine so. We don’t have the empathy to relate to people of other colors and sexes?
Empathy is a learned behavior. We teach our babies about ‘the other’ from a very young age, so why do so many people grow up with a faulty empathic sense? Is this something native to a particular color or creed? Is this lack of empathy the reason why there’s such division in this country now? Or is there another reason, more insidious and meaner? Do some people really just not give a flying fuck about anyone not themselves because that’s what they were taught or because they decided no one else was going to look out for number one, so they might as well do it? I look out for number one too, but I don’t trample upon others to do it.
I just don’t get it. But maybe I’m naive. Regardless, I’m going to keep caring about others and keep volunteering, because somebody has to do it.