A reader commenting on my earlier post about the four phrases that make for civil society noted that giving someone who has been rude a dose of their own medicine is rarely effective, that leading by example is the better course. I completely agree.
In responding to her comment I was reminded of something that happened to me several years ago. This story illustrates how people can feel remorse, can change, and that leading by example – with a small dose of ostracism for emphasis – can have unexpected and impressive results.
Ostracism is the act of ignoring and excluding an individual. It’s different than social exclusion, which involves a whole group (e.g. a congregation, organization or other social group) refusing to include someone.
Soon after I moved to Idaho in 2005, while my house was being built, I was flagged down by a neighbor whose house I passed to get to my lot. An older gentleman, usually wearing jeans with suspenders designed to look like measuring tapes, he approached my car as I rolled down my window. Introducing himself, he politely asked me to ask the contractors working on my house to drive slowly past his own house, which was close to the road, not only to reduce dust but because he had a small dog – a chihuahua mix – and he didn’t want him run over. The dog often snoozed in the middle of the road in the midday sun, a road which was pretty sleepy until I and others bought lots in this subdivision and starting building homes. I told him I would gladly do as he asked. It was the courteous and neighborly thing to do.
So began a friendship between me and this neighbor, who was born and raised on this land, someone entirely different in lifestyle and viewpoints than me. If he saw me driving by, he’d amble to the side of the road, I’d stop and turn off my car, and we’d swap joke and gossip for several minutes. We shared an affinity for slightly off-color jokes. I think I won him over when I shared my all-time favorite joke, which happens to be a lawyer joke (and yes, I was still practicing law back then): How are lawyers and prostitutes similar? For a fee they’ll assume any position. And for a great fee, they’ll tell you they care.
My house was built, I moved in, and this neighbor and I – along with his wife – developed a casual friendship. If I didn’t actually stop to talk to him, I always waved when I passed him on the road. He did a lot of walking, several miles every day, so I passed him frequently. A few times I even joined him on those walks.
One spring day in 2007 I was driving by this neighbor’s house when he waved me down. I rolled down my window, expecting his latest joke. Instead, with a weird grin on his face he planted his forearms on my driver’s door and asked, “Do you have a cat?” I said no, I didn’t. “Good,” he continued, “because my dog treed one and wouldn’t quit barking so I had to shoot it to get it out of the tree so the dog would shut up.”
I was stunned. It took me a minute to grasp what he’d said which, along with his demeanor, conveyed he was proud of what he’d done and thought I’d find it clever and amusing. Or something. Recovering, and revolted, with my best resting bitch face I looked him straight in the eye and said, “That could have been my cat or some other neighbor’s cat. How could you?” I then rolled up my window and drove away, afraid of what else I might say out of anger.
I stewed. I also felt disappointed: how could I have misjudged him so? What sort of person is this neighbor? What sort of place have I moved to? Would he shoot my dogs for some perceived transgression?
I quit waving to this neighbor as I drove by. If you’re from a small, rural community, you know this lack of waving for the snub it is, because everyone waves at everyone as they drive by, even total strangers and people they know but don’t really like. I no longer stopped to chat when I drove by his house. I was the queen of the cold shoulder. I was disgusted by what he’d done and the way he told me about it, and didn’t want anything to do with him.
Roughly two weeks later, I was walking my dogs along a nearby paved road. (During “mud seasons” here – autumn before the snow sticks, and spring as the snow melts – the dirt and gravel roads can be a mess to walk on, our dogs especially getting dirty, so those of us who do walk will drive to one of the few paved roads.) Coming over a small rise, I spied this neighbor walking toward me on the other side of the road. I decided to be civil – offer a nod or wave – but I wasn’t going to stop and chat, as I would have done pre-cat-killing-incident.
We were walking on opposite sides of the barely-two-lane road, each of us facing nonexistent traffic. Focusing on my dogs, hoping to avoid an awkward scene, I was surprised to see the neighbor cross the road and approach me, forcing me to stop walking. I looked at him without saying anything, working hard to hide my resting bitch face. The neighbor stood two feet in front of me and said with utter sincerity, “I’m sorry. It will never happen again.”
My frosty exterior melted instantly, as did my heart. I reached out and hugged him, and said, “Thank you.”
Nothing more needing to be said by either of us, we continued on our ways.
We forgave each other. Our friendship resumed.
A few years later, when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, I made sure they had the necessary powers of attorney and estate planning documents. When she passed, we shared hugs and tears.
In 2013, upon learning I’d had to put my oldest dog down, this neighbor walked up to my house and with tears in his eyes offered me a hug, a few words of condolences, and then walked back home. I was touched beyond words.
In May 2014, when I finally moved back to Idaho full time and for good, this neighbor brought his riding mower up to mow my severely overgrown yard so Finn and I could settle in and enjoy ourselves.
Here’s my takeaway: If you’re someone worth knowing – as a friend, neighbor, colleague – because you hold yourself to high standards and others value your friendship, then you have the opportunity to model good behavior. Your character by extension holds expectations that those you associate with will maintain similar standards in their own behavior. Apparently my neighbor valued my friendship enough to apologize and promise to never repeat the behavior that caused our rift. I don’t believe a scolding lecture by me would have had the same result. I certainly didn’t expect or anticipate the outcome that resulted, nor do I typically ostracize people, but I have always been grateful this situation worked out the way it did.
My neighbor and I still disagree on lots of things – politics, climate change and forest management quickly come to mind – but as neighbors we’re there for each other in times of need, and that’s worth a lot, certainly worth the effort to be civil and kind.
Featured image: walking through the neighborhood with Finn in 2014, having just passed the house of the neighbor mentioned in this post. The orange flags on the reduced speed limit sign were placed there by my neighbor, hoping to encourage people to slow down before passing his home.