I grew up in south Mississippi, where we kind of looked down on city folks – especially if they were from up north (“up north” basically meant anywhere past the northern border of Tennessee, or too far into south Florida, or anywhere in the midwest – or the west coast).
Any southerner who visited the big city (especially a northern one) inevitably returned with horror stories of children who didn’t say “ma’am” and “sir,” car horns that gratuitously honked at every obstacle, and unattractive Yankee ladies who got all stinky-faced whenever they heard a southern accent.
Nine years ago, I moved to Washington, DC, which has a metro population of about five million people. And one thing I immediately noticed about folks in the nation’s capital is – well, they actually do tend to be kind of rude – at least when it comes to interacting with strangers.
Here’s the thing: in the big city, you can groan at the woman and her toddlers who are holding up the line at the grocery store. You can sit on your horn when someone is driving too slowly through the intersection. And you can neglect to greet the cashier at Au Bon Pain (for those southerners out there who aren’t familiar, “Au Bon Pain” is French for “Panera Bread”).
And do you know why you can do all that in the big city? Because you don’t know that mother in the line at the grocery store or the granny driving too slowly through the intersection or the cashier at the sandwich shop. You can be the jerk you actually are inside because there’s no accountability. You have a world of strangers upon whom you can experiment with your real, ugly self.
In small to medium-sized towns, you can’t afford to get all huffy behind the exhausted momma – she goes to your church. That granny driving slowly down the street – that’s your high school English teacher. And you’re probably on a first-name basis with the cashier at the sandwich shop, because there are a limited number of sandwich shops in town.
I grew up in a small town like that, a place where you were accountable for your reputation in public; and when I moved to DC, I took great pride in continuing to treat people like I had back in Mississippi. In fact, I’ll just say it: I kind of looked down on the hard-hearted city folk whose paths I crossed each day. But then last week put me in my place.
My wife and I just moved back to DC after a two-year detour in North Carolina, and our move required me to spend several hours of my time on the phone with the cable company, home improvement stores, and contractors. With each additional minute of hold time and with each misunderstanding, I grew more and more frustrated. My tone got sharper, my attitude got more toxic, and I got pushy, pushy, pushy. But I didn’t care.
I didn’t know those people. I was just talking to another clueless operator at a call center, another contractor trying to scam me out of money. Like the big city folks I’ve judged for so long, I was in a world of strangers, so I gave my inner jerk permission to get things done without all the sugary southern sweetness.
The thing is, we’ve all got a big city jerk inside us – we just need the right amount of anonymity and frustration to bring him out. For example, maybe you wouldn’t ever blare your horn in traffic – but you might be the kind who screams at your kids. Maybe you wouldn’t give a stranger the finger – but you might tell your spouse to shut up. And you would never, ever tell off a stranger on the street – but you would easily post a sarcastic Facebook rant that’s sure to hurt the feelings of any number of random people out there.
This isn’t a big city problem, folks – this is a sin problem, and we’ve all got different things that reveal it. So whatever it is that brings out the beast in you – whether it’s the slow-moving city bus, the incomprehensible phone operator, or your spouse who just doesn’t get it – let’s thank God for the gift of that frustration. Because when it’s all said and done, those frustrations are the ones that show us how badly we all need Jesus.