From time to time, someone will ask me where I get ideas for my columns. After all, I’ve been writing in The Jewish Press for several decades. In fact, the very first time something I wrote was printed in the newspaper was in the mid 1980s! Mrs. Irene Klass, a”h, happened to overhear me speak of a unique experience I had had in Eretz Yisrael. She asked me to write it down and mail it to her. Write and mail it – as in get a sheet of blank paper, insert it into a typewriter, begin typing – after making sure to have whiteout liquid on hand, slip the paper into an envelope, then put a stamp and an address on the envelope and walk to the nearest mailbox. And then pray it was delivered in a timely manner.
Only baby boomers can fully appreciate the bracha of instant communication via email and WhatsApp – once their grandchildren show them how to use it.
Mrs. Klass had assured a skeptical me the article would go in – she was, after all, the publisher’s wife – and it did. This led to more submissions over the years and eventually a regular column.
So it’s a fair question: Where do my ideas come from? The answer is simple: from experiencing or observing life – my own or that of others. It’s all about being mindful, and assessing what I see around me.
Being mindful of one’s surroundings is not only educational and inspiring, on a more serious note, it has become a necessity. In fact, being oblivious or distracted can literally be life-threatening.
Remember how as children we were told to look both ways before crossing the street? That was when there were no lights or stop signs. Nowadays, one must look left and right and right and left before stepping off the curb on a green light, or while walking in a crosswalk. Even though as a pedestrian, you have the right of way, being vigilant is a manifestation of pikuach nefesh. Being right doesn’t give you an iota of protection.
Unfortunately, there has been a serious devaluation of derech eretz, of courteous, considerate behavior. Good manners, patience and tolerance have been seriously diminished by widespread narcissism and arrogance, which results in people in cars, bicycles and even walkers acting as if their time and convenience is superior. As far as they are concerned, they are entitled to go first, hog the sidewalk, cut in line, even if it means breaking traffic rules, or the rules of menshlichkeit.
Somehow both in the outside world and sadly, in heimishe communities where middos are especially emphasized, and we are imbued with Hillel’s declaration to treat others as you want to be treated, that message is being ignored. Instead, me, myself and I, are supreme. Everyone else is secondary.
This unfortunate selfishness has been fueled by an obsession with smartphones. I have seen carpool parents driving not just their kids, but their friends’ kids with their eyes averted downwards as they text frantically, lest the information they want to glean or share be delayed by a few minutes. It’s bad enough putting your own children at risk, but to be hefker with the neshamas entrusted to you? That’s beyond comprehension.
And what about the men, women and children trustingly crossing the street who can be mowed down by a distracted driver?
In many cities, it’s legal for cars to make a right turn on a red light. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stay on the curb because of impatient drivers barely slowing down – let alone stopping – at the red light or stop sign, as they quickly turn, assuming that they can beat the pedestrian in occupying that space. I stay put.
Which brings me to the real purpose of this column: Mindful walking. I have a smartphone that I enjoy using. I like to check my emails, the stock market, the news, and whatever catches my interest. It’s like having an encyclopedia in my pocket. I used to look at the phone while walking on the sidewalk, thinking it was safe to do so. I had already learned not to be distracted by a phone while crossing a street, be it a small side street or a busy intersection because having the right of way did not guarantee I would successfully get across.
(On Purim 2006, coming from my nephew’s sheva brachot, I crossed a small side street in Flatbush, but a clueless driver decided to zoom backwards as I was crossing what was the now-empty intersection. The look of horror on a bystander on the other side made me realize just how close I came to having my yahrzeit on this happiest of holidays. That is why getting a blood cancer diagnosis didn’t make me feel more vulnerable than anyone else. Just being out and about puts us on an equal footing.)
I now don’t look at my phone at all when I am walking – which I do quite a bit of because I believe walking is the closest one can come to finding the fountain of youth, but that’s for another column.
It is crucial to be aware of your surroundings even if you are on a stroll. There are yeshiva kids whizzing by on their bicycles on the sidewalk; there are students racing to catch a bus and teens just playfully shoving each other and horsing around. A pedestrian has to be very mindful of others who can easily knock him/her down.
And that includes other pedestrians blindly walking with their heads down, engrossed by a text. They are so absorbed that they forget to look up, and I have had to sidestep many such mindless walkers; if I wasn’t alert, we’d have a head-on collision!
I’ve actually seen people step off the curb without looking to see if a car was turning, or were unaware that a vehicle was backing out of a driveway. Add noise-erasing earphones, and these clueless young people are at high risk for serious injuries or death.
“See no evil, hear no evil” – the evil is actually right there.
Every day I read of drunk or high drivers going through red lights or stop signs – and sadly there is an epidemic of distracted drivers plowing into cars and people. What happens to people is min Shamayim, but we still have to do our hishtadlus in keeping ourselves safe. If it’s necessary to answer a call or read a text, do so in a spot where you can’t be knocked over by a speeding bicyclist, car, or another pedestrian. That includes refraining from whipping out your phone in front of a commercial driveway, a mall parking lot, or even a small residential driveway.
I will admit that I get careless at times, and am not always aware of my surroundings. But I’m trying to get into the habit so that it will become second nature, the way putting on a seatbelt eventually evolved into one, and kids wearing helmets when cycling.
There will be many vacationing families this summer whose members will be sauntering down narrow country lanes, and dirt roads, and poorly lit streets. Keep your head up and be mindful. That text isn’t worth being severely injured, or worse, losing your life.