The day I realized it wasn’t only other people with a pettiness problem
I’m the Problem: An occasional series in which I detail how I, in fact, am the problem
Why write an article about pettiness? I think it’s commonly understood that you and I are not petty, pettiness is unpleasant, and people who are petty should probably change. The guy across the street who puts out traffic cones so no one parks in “his” spot is petty. Not me.
But lately I’ve been reconsidering whether that first premise is actually true.
A story: recently I took a car share car, an Evo, home from a concert. The closest parking spot to my house was right in front of the driveway to the house next door, which was under construction. It was late, and I parked. “I wonder how the construction workers will move it in the morning?” I thought, with a little bit of curiosity, and perhaps a touch of retribution (said construction crew had been banging away at 7 a.m. throughout my pregnancy, labour, and first months of child-having). Note that you can’t move an Evo car without an Evo membership. I was effectively blocking them from getting to work.
A few days later, my husband and I saw a different Evo in the neighborhood. “That reminds me,” he said. “Did you see that someone parked an Evo in front of the construction site?”
“That was me!” I said, with only the most civilized amount of glee. “I wanted to see how they would figure out how to move it!”
No sooner did the words leave my mouth than I realized what a petty, unnecessary move that was. Instant shame.
But! I tried to justify to myself. I’m a nice person! And it was raining when I parked! And it was late! And…
No, I realized. None of those things justified it. It was just petty. So casual and unnecessary, so small. But even the smallest act of pettiness matters, because what I was really doing was saying this: “Dear construction workers: me getting into my house 30 seconds sooner is more important to me than you, than your work, than the job you’re doing for my neighborhood. In fact, making your life a little bit worse is nothing but a silly game to me, one I play without a second thought.”
And that kind of thinking, in no uncertain terms, is bad. There was something startling about my lack of immunity to quiet unneighborliness.
Pettiness connotes two things: narrowness of focus and smallness. That narrowness of focus is a narrow focus on the self. But there’s also the smallness: small acts we barely notice we’re doing.
Big actions, good or bad, get headlines, but small actions create the environment in which those events take place. Small actions build context. And more than that, small actions escalate, engendering larger acts of purposeless animosity.
Fortunately for me, parking the Evo in front of the construction site didn’t lead to an ever escalating, Montague-Capulet tit-for-tat culminating in a tragic final scene. But I’m glad it happened. The world will never become a kinder place unless we see the problems in it in ourselves as well.