We pulled up to an elevator where a family with a baby carriage was also waiting. We were all chatting about the -21C temperature and trying to find ways to describe it. The elevator door opened and we all waited for the family to take it up. It’s not a large one so we knew we’d be on the next one. However when the husband got on he maneuvered the carriage over and then I was invited to pull in beside them. The wive and son, who would have been about 4, said that they would take the stairs. At first I politely refused but they were insistent, so I got on and Joe and the girls took the stairs.

On our ride up I thanked the husband for what the family had done. He told me that he and his wife value compassion and good citizenship as traits that they want their children to learn. “It’s hard to teach these things, you have to do these things and then hope they see,” he said, then he smiled and said, “so having children has meant that my wife and I started out pretending to be much better people than we were, but it’s becoming more of a habit.”

We both laughed and I admitted that a lot of the time when I was out and in public was spent in pretending to be the person I wanted to be, not the person I was.

I told this anecdote to a few people and several of them remarked something like, “Wow, if that’s true, I can’t imagine what was held back.” I talked to them about this and they reminded me of times that I spoke up or spoke out. They thought, I guess, that being a good citizen or being compassionate was about being polite or being calm in all circumstances.

This floors me.

Thinking that citizenship is about being quiet and acquiescent? What? When I said what I said I was thinking not about being quiet those times I spoke up in the face of either prejudice or bigotry, but those times I didn’t. I need to pretend to be stronger than I am much more than I need to pretend to be quiet and simply let things pass.

The hardest thing to shake off, in the real, tangible, face to actual face, world is complacency. Outrage and verbal smack downs on line are nothing like real world encounters. Being good at one does not translate into being good at the other. On line I can respond in an instant, in the real world I have to take a breath and steel my resolve before speaking up. Silence is the hardest material to break when it’s the most important time to break it. I know.

Good citizenship and compassion are shown when you make space for another, at a cost to yourself, on an elevator. It’s also shown when you ensure that a voice is heard when a voice needs to be heard.

Both are hard.

Both take work.

Both make us better people.

Those kids have amazing parents because for at least 4 years they have been turning complacency into kindness in order to teach their kids, and change themselves.

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