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Count your blessings, not teeth

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OPINION: The fact that there are so many dissatisfied South Africans who have not yet embraced the decline and who spend so much of their energy complaining, means to me that some people still have a sense of what ’good’ should look and feel like, writes Lance Fredericks.

A trader displays the teeth of a donkey during an annual donkey fair at Vautha, 49km south from the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, November 20, 2012. Picture: Reuters/Amit Dave

GROWING up, we learned very quickly that when adults are having a conversation the children had better make themselves scarce.

Stick around for a bit too long and you’d suddenly be confronted with the question, “How many?”

That simply meant, how many adult teeth have you counted seeing as you were in the company for so long.

On Monday this week, I felt that same “how many” feeling come over me as I waited to pay for the few items that I had purchased at a supermarket. I felt terribly out of place, as if I was intruding, because after I was asked whether I needed a plastic bag, it’s as if I had ceased to exist for the cashier and her companion as they carried on their important conversation.

For the record, I counted 42 teeth in all. Just saying

I don’t mind saying that I was more than a little upset at the poor service – yes, my items were being scanned, so there was no transgression of their job description – but still, even though I don’t expect to be treated like royalty (or a government official) at least I don’t want to feel as if I am a nuisance. And yet that is exactly what it felt like.

The following day – because of a course I am doing that challenged me to take a long walk and process thoughts in my head to see what ideas, plans or conclusions rose to the surface – I had time to think through what had happened at the supermarket.

I found myself with so many thoughts to process that instead of walking for 30 minutes, I took an hour-long, brisk walk. I walked past potholed roads, flowing sewage, leaking water pipes and heaps of litter. I saw minibus-taxis creeping through red traffic lights and other drivers generally being careless and rebellious on the roads. And at first all this made me angry and increased my frustration.

My mind turned to what someone had said about the issues I raised in my attempted poem in last week’s newspaper: “Sickening,” he responded. “I am not overly optimistic about the future”.

Then I happened to walk past a fellow pedestrian going in the opposite direction and nodded a ‘good morning’ to him. He smiled, raised his hand slightly and said, “Morning, good morning sir.” Shortly after this I passed a few more people and they too were polite and friendly.

It’s as if scales fell off my eyes. I realised that being upset by a broken city, frustrated by poor service delivery or bad service at a supermarket is actually a very, very good thing.

Allow me to try and explain.

Years ago I was having a conversation with a friend who was an Emergency Room nurse. She told me that when paramedics arrive at the scene of an accident where there are multiple injuries they treat the patients at the scene according to a predetermined hierarchy.

She told me that if the patient is screaming and writhing in pain, the paramedics, though sympathetic, would not attend to them first. They would attend to those who were quiet. She tried to explain to me that when an injured person is quiet it means that they do not have the strength nor the will to fight their pain, and they are in the greatest danger of slipping away, having resigned themselves to their demise.

I thought about this conversation as I walked and realised that because there are so many people still complaining, griping, moaning and making a noise about the state of the city, country and society in general, it could mean that even though we are ‘injured’ we have not resigned ourselves to our fate. We are not slipping quietly away to a sure demise.

“Imagine,” I thought as I strolled along, “how damaged we as a nation would be if we were prepared to accept that this broken, unkempt, littered, filthy city was OK to live in?”

It’s odd, but a sense of gratitude flooded over me. Yes, people are complaining. Yes, everything is a mess. Yes, lazy workers and inept employers and corrupt and incompetent officials are driving this city and country into the ground … but NO, we are not happy about it.

Recently a friend told me about how she was struggling because someone she knew was rude, abusive and unnecessarily overbearing. She said that she wondered why people can’t just respect others.

Then she told me of how, knowing how it feels to be treated as a second-rate human being, she went into a store and made a point of being friendly and kind to the lady serving her. She said that the smile of appreciation she saw on that woman’s face made her feel good about herself.

It was obvious, she said, that the woman serving her appreciated being treated with kindness and respect. She wondered why more people – especially those with some authority and power – couldn’t just be, if not ‘nice’, then at least civil.

All these thoughts pulsed through my head on Tuesday evening as I rubbed liniment and muscle rub on my aching legs. I was encouraged because the fact that there are so many dissatisfied South Africans who have not yet embraced the decline and who spend so much of their energy complaining, means to me that some people still have a sense of what ‘good’ should look and feel like.

So I will keep reminding myself that becoming frustrated by bad service and a crumbling city could be a good sign. It could be the strongest indication that we have not yet given in and surrendered to the many things that are very, very wrong.

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