15 Feb Holding Hope Even When the Mail Doesn’t Come

Last week I went to the post office and mailed a package. The next day, that same package turned up on my doorstep — delivered by the United States Postal Service. It seemed like a joke but I knew what had happened, because this had happened before: apparently, the mail sorter had looked only at the return address — the tiny label on the back of the parcel — and assumed this was the destination.

So he gave it to the carrier and the carrier a) did not notice that he was delivering a package using the tiny label on the back of the parcel, b) did not notice that the postage was on the other side of the parcel, and c) did not notice the LARGE address with the postage on the other side of the parcel. Had the carrier taken note of any detail, such as the postage date, he would have seen that he was delivering a package the very next day to a destination whose return address (the LARGE hand-written address below the postage) was half way across the country. Nothing about the delivery would have made sense.

Mind you, after I scooped up the misdelivery, ran down the street, and handed it to the carrier, I was quite civil. I said, “Oh, hi, this package goes here.” I pointed to the LARGE hand-printed address. Then I turned the package over and pointed to the tiny return label: “Not here.” The carrier said, “Oh, okay.” Then I said, “Thanks.” And that was it. I knew it would do no good to scold the carrier.

This is the third time in as many years that such a misdelivery has happened to me. I don’t think it’s an error we can blame on machines. But I don’t want to talk about blame. No, this isn’t about the incompetence of the USPS and it’s not about mindless youth. My mail carrier is at least 40 years old. It’s about the slippage of attention. It seems we’ve heard this from every quarter: fewer people are paying attention nowadays — paying attention to their driving (as they are texting), paying attention to the homeless (who seem to be on every other street corner), paying attention to their families (because they’re overworked), in other words: paying attention to things that matter. Like the frigging address on the package you’ve just mailed.

For things to work reasonably well, we have to trust that others will follow through. When others don’t follow through, when things start “slipping through the cracks,” we start getting cynical because we don’t trust that others will do the right thing. It starts small. Let’s say you notice that you’re getting misdelivered letters fairly regulalry. Then it occurs to you that your own mail is probably getting misdelivered too. When you wonder how much mail is actually getting to you, you conclude it’s likely that other people might not be as conscienetious as you and are probably throwing away your misdelivered mail. So you’re being betrayed twice: first by the careless postal carrier, then by thoughtless (selfish!) neighbors.

And so it goes: the checkers at the grocery store get your tally wrong if you don’t check it every time; your doctor can’t remember who you are when you come in for your annual check-up; the guy at the tire store sells you the wrong tires, but you don’t find out until one of them blows on the highway. It wears you down and you get pissed off and it seems to you that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

So here’s the dilemma: how do we get people to pay more attention to the things that matter, i.e., to the services that we depend on for a decent quality of life? At bottom, this is about a good faith bargain: if I take care of my business in a caring way, you will take care of yours in a caring way. We get angry and cynical when somebody breaks the bargain at our expense. This has become such a problem that some businesses now offer “concierge service” for those who want, and can afford, extra attention. Concierge service in a hospital means that you’ll be seen right away (no waiting room!) and you’ll get the best-trained staff, which all but guarantess that nobody will mis-read your chart and kill you by giving you the wrong medicaton or wheeling you into the wrong operation.

Still, we can’t assume that, if you pay enough, people you rely on will pay attention. Nonetheless, I hold a lot of hope for humanity. I mean, when you think about it, it’s amazing we’ve come this far. Enough of us get enough right to keep things going in a good way. So, for now, I’ll let that thought comfort me, especially tomorrow when I open my front door and look for my mail.