The Social Contract: a Thing of the Past?


I recently faced a challenge — and failed — when I went to a large Duane Reade “pharmacy” on a mundane errand. They had run out of shopping bags (how is that possible?), so I had to carry an awkward array of toilet paper rolls and paper towels in my arms, while juggling a purse.

When I got to the door, a middle-class mom and two boys (about 10 or 11, I’d guess) were ahead of me. I asked them to hold the door for me, as I was having difficulty juggling my weird load; but the boy slipped through the door behind his mom, not removing his hands from his pockets, and the door fell on me, knocking me back against its frame.

I was surprised and, yes, angry (sometimes it takes very little for me to feel threatened in this city!) So I drily said, “Thanks — that was thoughtful,” and staggered out after them.

The mother immediately began to attack me verbally, as if I had dropped the heavy door on them. (Is that surprising?)

“Just because you ask something doesn’t mean they have to do it!” she yelled at me in defense of her boy’s — and her own — rudeness.

This got me thinking, angry as I was (I’m not quite the total knee-jerk responder I once was). Was she saying that compassion and community were of discretionary value? That a million years of evolution and centuries of law had come down to, “IF I want to”?

I didn’t remain silent, as any intelligent person would have done, as I was pretty angry now. (So much for instant Zen! I couldn’t have felt compassion for her if I tried at that point — unless she were about to be run over by a truck or something, I couldn’t see her as being quite human).

“Great!” I stupidly said. “I can’t wait for the day they’re grown and you need them — and they simply walk away from you because they don’t feel like helping you, and you just die in the street! Does that make sense to you? What kind of mother are you, saying these things in front of your children?!?”

Where was my normal curiosity at that moment, and why couldn’t I respond with it instead of anger? (Hey: turning the other cheek worked for Jesus! At least for a while . . . sort of . . . hmmm.)

Fortunately, her screaming died away as she rounded the corner at Sixth Avenue, and she disappeared with her brood of future sociopaths.

I wondered if she would have behaved like that if I had been black (she was — and she was wearing a beret of black/green/yellow “African” colors). She probably would not have screamed at me if I had been male. But how can I find the key to feeling compassionate and kind to someone who behaves so violently for “no reason”?

My roommate has similar issues and I am struggling to come to terms with them. She is so self-protective that giving the tiniest thing (washing my spoon, for example, when she’s doing her dishes) is too much for her. She signed a contact with me to help out with the housework: but “No!” is her favorite word. “Please” and “Thank you” are threatening phrases she refuses to use. There’s some kind of odd bookkeeping system at work here.


Who hurt these women so badly that they feel they cannot respond to another person’s need without “giving up” something “precious” or “endangered” in themselves?


With my roommate, I’ve responded by expecting her be wrapped up in her ego-centric shell. I try not to judge it: it just is what it is. If she does something nice, I thank her immediately.

Granted, if I’m obliged to wash all her dishes the day I’ve painfully sprained my wrist (not because I want to do them, but because I can’t use the kitchen until they’re out of the sink), she would just pile up more dishes for me. My pain is, to her, of no interest. I clean up the bathroom almost every day after she’s been in there; and the kitchen, as well. I sort the recyclables so the paper is actually in the bag for paper, and not with the glass/plastic/metal items, even though the bags are clearly labeled.

My new philosophy with her is to bear in mind Joko’s “empty rowboat”: what would I do if these things needed to be done and I was living alone? They wouldn’t be a problem; I’d just do them and go on. And to a large extent, over the past few months, she and I have trained me to respond that way.

Asking her to do this or that is ineffective, and makes her feel judged. So it’s a strategy I’ve abandoned at her request. And, in fairness to her, her hard shell has cracked open a little. We talk and joke together almost every day now; and she makes a (tiny) extra effort to clean up after herself. It’s progress — and I see it and truly appreciate it.

I also try to continue to do little things for her, when appropriate. For example, I gave her a bouquet of yellow roses for her birthday in October, in spite of her protestations that she was “too old” for birthdays (who told her that? She’s only just 30!) She asked me if I knew how to dry them; and they are still hanging over her bed where she sees them every night — and seems to enjoy them.

For Christmas I also gave her two lovely decorated cookies, wrapped in cellophane, and push-pinned them to either side of her door frame. On the left is a gingerbread Rudolph looking harried (you would be too if you were responsible for a guy who had to leave 9,000 gifts/second at different houses in one night, to guarantee that every child in the world got one!) He appears to be leaping across toward a large, green, polka-dotted stocking cookie on the other side of her door, waiting to receive the gifts.

Yesterday I added a picture of a leaping black deer on a yellow highway warning sign and taped it to her door between them. Wouldn’t want her to get run over by Rudolph!

I must say, she’s been quite touched by these small gifts (not that she would give anything in return, nor would I expect it). She must have had a childhood deprived of these small pleasures, or something happened to poison them. She’s told me that she hasn’t spoken to her parents in years (she’s an only child!) and has no intention of ever doing so again. How does that make them feel? What did they do to deserve that? I probably will never know.

These are all mysteries I am coming to grips with — fairly successfully at home; much less so in the street.

As a single “old” woman living on her own, the breakdown of community has dire potential consequences for me. But in fact, there does seem to be a proliferation of rudeness and deafness. Everyone (well, almost everyone) wears earplugs here, and can only photograph people in the minutes before they are crushed by a train — not pull them back to safety on the platform (what’s with that??!?). 

It’s a sad world my friends’ children have inherited, and I’m glad I’ll be leaving it before the mid-century happens. My curiosity, of course, wants me to live forever: but what would be the point? Compassion is so hard to generate in people who pass everyone else on the street as if they were the only ones and the other eight million of us in this city simply were non-existent.

True, on Christmas — especially in Queens — everyone (almost everyone) was open, trusting and smiling from their hearts. And — sometimes — young men and older women(!) now get up to give me their seat on the subway.

Why can’t this be so every day?

What, exactly, do we have to lose?


4 Responses to The Social Contract: a Thing of the Past?

  1. Arn says:

    The Social Contract hasn’t been the same since good old Ayn Rand ruined it by spewing saliva all over its pages she angrily preached to the masses. I mean, to INDIVIDUALS.

  2. Arn says:

    OOPS: there should be a WHILE between PAGES and SHE above. Sorry.

  3. Arn says:

    With anger I usually just Pay It Forward, which is a very destructive strategy for the world around me but helps me keeps my sanity (mind) and health (body) more or less intact, as the release helps me unload some of the cortisol I would otherwise be holding, I think. I can see the consequences on my family, but sadly enough, I’m too self-absorbed to care enough to really do something about it, I guess. Or too addicted to the chemical discharge anger affords me. But you’re on the right track. Except that maybe you should find another roommate, if you ask me

  4. hoffmannn says:

    I would find another: but I can’t legally boot her out, and “No!” is her favorite word.

    So I’m “using” her as my practice — trying to become more compassionate. And it’s working! We do get along well now, and I need the exercise, so vacuuming isn’t threatening, even if it hurts my back.

    It’s like vitamins for the spirit: no cortisol build-up, because I really let it go. I respect her as a dancer and her determination may be stubbornness at times, but it’s who she is.

    I’m getting marginally better, thanks to her!

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