Everyone who knew Rebecca knew that she was a nice person -- pleasant, mannered, and willing to give a hand to anyone who needed it. Earlier on this fated commute, she had stopped to pick up a stray cat running in the street near her daughter's school, despite the fact that Katia was shouting at her about being late for homeroom.
Although she felt she could have handled her daughter's temper tantrum a little better, she never would have guessed how much on edge she remained on the way home, when the guy in the black SUV tried to cut in front her from the left-hand merge lane. Like so many before him, he had sped by the line of cars inching forward in the heavy traffic - the same line in which Rebecca had plugged along patiently for 10 minutes after dropping Katia at school.
Every morning there's someone like him, she thought, some jerk who can't wait in line like everybody else. She always let them in, but this time, it was the look on his face, like who the hell does she think she is not to stop her stupid little car for him. She decided that she wasn't going to take it anymore. She hit the gas pedal just as he tried to cut in front of her. He jammed on his brakes and she swerved into the lane to her right to avoid him, forcing the driver in the van in that lane to jam on her brakes.
Mike, the man in the black SUV, was still seething about how "stupid" she was to have risked an accident over a silly thing like a merge into heavy traffic. Letting him in would have cost her all of one second lost time. He couldn't believe that he had to put up with such nonsense, on top of dealing all morning with his teenage son, who had broken curfew the night before. Not to mention the fact that he was anticipating a hassle with the new kid on his sales force. He wasn't going take any lip from this guy who had backed him into a corner by not turning in the paperwork for the few measly sales he made, after repeated warnings.
The young man Mike ended up firing that morning stopped in a bar on his way home. Mike had called security to have him escorted off the premises. That was so unnecessary, the young man thought over and over as he drank. He was only trying to stand up for himself and explain why he was late turning in the paperwork. The security guard was just Mike's way of making it more humiliating.
That night he grumbled about the humiliation, knowing full well that Mike was home laughing at him. Yet all his wife could do was nag him about getting another job right away and how she was afraid that they couldn't pay the bills. He slapped her as she persisted and, before the evening was over, brutally punched her in front of their young son.
This was a perfect storm of emotional pollution -- people primed by a series of small responses to emotional pollution that accumulate over time. Sooner or later they reach a point where they react badly and uncharacteristically. Rebecca was a client of mine who related her part of the story to me that very day. A week later, Mike became a client in part because he felt terrible having learned that the young man he fired beat up his wife that afternoon. As fate would have it, the young man showed up a couple months later in a court-ordered domestic violence group I lead in Maryland. None of them knew each other.
Although few of us are guilty of direct abuse of other people, and, for the most part, we try not to be rude to others, we all unwittingly contribute to rudeness and abuse by increasing the emotional pollution around us. We are responsible for rude and abusive behavior to the extent that we increase the likelihood of it occurring, even if only those who actually do the rude or abusive behavior are guilty of it.
In the extremely complex social structure of modern living, we cannot self-righteously condemn those who abuse without accepting responsibility for the fact that our own contributions to emotional pollution make it more likely that they will.