You learn things at gas stations.

Something is brewing beneath the surface of our society; and it’s not going to be pretty.

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I was filling my wife’s car with gas last week. It was early evening, cool and rainy, in a well-lit station I have probably been to hundreds of times.

Next to me, a man jumped out of his car and screamed profanity. The pumps were between us so I couldn’t see his face. Neither could I see anyone who was the focus of his anger. He vocalized no threats. There just seemed to be frustration and anger exploding from him. Was it a phone call? Was it someone in his car I couldn’t discern? Was it a text? Was it the price of gas or a canceled debit card? Who knows. Understanding human behavior a bit I simply got into my car and drove away.

The next day I was in another gas station while traveling with my wife. I went into the restroom and saw a man berating two others who were taking up stalls. There was a verbal exchange between what appeared to me strangers. It wasn’t jovial. It was annoyance, spilling over and violating the well-worn paths of societal norms. (Men, you see, generally don’t talk to one another in the restroom.)

These might seem like completely unrelated incidents (except for the common denominator of similar location). But I don’t think so. The thing is, this Summer will be my 29th year in medical practice after residency. So actually, 32 years as a physician. What that means is that I have had a decades long, graduate level class in human behavior and societal trends. And in point of fact, I’ve done a pretty good job of predicting things. (Maybe I’ll cover that another day.)

What I sense is that something is brewing. Beneath the surface and often on the surface, there are people who are frustrated and angry. Maybe it’s simply about money. Perhaps the commonality is the price of gas, which hits those on the lower end of the economy pretty hard.

It could be the transition out of COVID; sometimes readjustment can be difficult. But the people I saw being angry were not likely to have been those who stayed locked down and out of sight. They were the folks who had to keep going to work, and working hard, despite the warnings.

Maybe it’s anger at what was lost during COVID. Family members, jobs, the educational attainment of their children; trust in the government that they wanted to love.

Perhaps the war in Ukraine is lurking in the back of people’s minds. The plain truth is that those who are struggling with gas prices would also be those most likely to be pulled into a war if there were a general mobilization. The media seem almost eager to launch us into a war in Europe, a WWIII. But then, the media wouldn’t typically be the ones doing the fighting; nor will their children. Mind you I don’t see that happening. But these days we’re looking at the future ‘through a glass darkly,’ as St. Paul might say.

I don’t know all of the etiologies of the general tone that I feel. And I’m not here to point my finger. Most complex situations are best explained by complex answers. Few useful answers will come out of either side if the explanations are as grossly simple as ‘Trump caused it’ or ‘Biden did it.’

What I am concerned with is the human beings I treat, and I see on the street. The people who are my friends and family. My neighbors and the people I worship with on the Sundays I’m not working. What I’m concerned with is that we recognize the dangers of dismissive attitudes.

During COVID there were really two camps. Those who could work from home and those who couldn’t and had to go out into the world and risk the virus. Sadly, those who worked from home were often detached from reality. They didn’t understand that the very things that allowed them to stay home frequently had to be done by people who couldn’t stay home.

Power had to be generated, electric lines managed, sewer and water systems maintained, food grown, prepared and delivered, safety protected by public servants, grocery stores and truck stops opened, trucks, planes and trains moving. They understood that hospitals and ambulances had to be available, but in their desire to be safe and encourage safety, their desire to follow science and be good citizens, they missed the fact that so very many couldn’t live as they did. Either because their jobs were not amenable to remote work, or because they had small bank accounts (or no bank accounts); or both. This resulted in some very angry, very toxic attitudes and nasty name calling and commentary.

And it was returned in kind by those who were cruel to those wearing masks, and who said terrible things to those in healthcare who simply asked about their vaccination status. It was returned in unnecessary risk for the sake of political posturing. There was no lack of hatred on either side. I had hoped we were moving past that.

But I think we’re teetering on a similar situation now. Because some of those who navigated COVID with safe, lucrative jobs (often from home) are also those who can’t seem to fathom the pain of high gas prices or inflation. They make comments like ‘just buy electric,’ or ‘your Starbucks coffee costs more per gallon than gasoline,’ or ‘stop worrying about it, there’s a war in Ukraine,’ or ‘it’s Putin’s gas hike’ and ‘don’t worry about supply chain, you’re treadmill will arrive eventually.’

This is directed to people who can’t possibly afford a Tesla, or even any new car electric or not. This directed to those who are hoping to pay for their kids to be educated, and maybe take a short Summer beach trip before everyone is back in school. This to those who cut coupons and buy as cheaply as they can but still find themselves pinched.

Add to this endless accusations directed at common men and women that they are hateful, sexist, (insert group)-phobic and racist the result is a deep, seething anger among a lot of Americans. What keeps it from erupting? Who knows. In large part it’s the fact that they simply have to go to work to support families and they know that they can’t afford the time to protest. Further, they learned from watching the January 6 events that they certainly don’t have time for protracted prison sentences.

I just want us all to recognize that behind the politics and posturing are people. There are good people who are very concerned about climate change and they don’t deserve anyone’s hatred. And there are good people who simply can’t stop using fossil fuels; they don’t deserve to have their needs minimized and marginalized.

But most of all, it’s important that those who have remember to show regard for those who have not. We should have learned this from COVID but I fear we have not, and that the divisions that developed during the pandemic are only going to grow more dangerous as individual finances are stressed and fuel prices rise; as rumors of war fill the news feeds and political rhetoric explodes as the mid-terms approach.

I care about the sources of the seismic cultural, political and economic shifts causing tremors beneath our feet.

I care more about the fact that real humans of every stripe may suffer terrible if the earthquake finally shakes us down.





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