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We tell a crude joke or make an inappropriate comment to or about someone else, or we criticize others for situations and circumstances beyond their control, and the greatest harm that is done is to ourselves.

I'm not saying the young woman in the fancy sports car was rude when she cut me off in the fast-food restaurant’s drive-through line.

On second thought, I am saying that because, well, she was rude.

I don’t think she was intentionally rude. It was more of an accidental rudeness. Like she was thinking, “Oh man, I didn’t even see you there” as she powered past me into the next place in line. If it had been a line at the supermarket check-out stand, she probably would have stepped back and said, “Excuse me.” But in a busy fast-food drive-through line, that isn’t so easily done.

So she moved on ahead of me, placed her order and then drove to the cashier’s window to pay for her food — which, it seemed to me, required an inordinate amount of time and discussion between her and the people working at the restaurant. And which I chalked up to more rudeness.

“What on earth could be taking so long?” I asked myself as I fumbled impatiently with the air conditioning controls in my car. Then I chuckled wickedly as I imagined the driver ahead of me struggling to come up with a coherent answer to that age-old fast-food question: “Do you want fries with that?”

Yeah, the mean street of rudeness was flowing in both directions that day. But I felt completely justified in my unkind thoughts because, hey, she started it. And that makes it acceptable, appropriate and completely defensible. Just ask any 5-year-old.

When at last she pulled away and headed back to the street with her lunch, I drove up to the cashier’s window to pay for my order.

“No charge,” said the young woman at the window.

I was sure I hadn’t heard her correctly.

“Excuse me?” I asked. “How much did you say?”

She smiled and leaned toward me.

“The girl ahead of you paid for your food,” the cashier said, smiling. “She said to tell you she’s sorry she cut you off. And she hopes you have a really great day!”

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even know what to think. And that’s probably just as well. As the great essayist Henry David Thoreau once said, “Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin ...”

And so I was silent. I nodded and smiled at the cashier and went to pick up my lunch at the next window, thinking only that I picked the wrong day to order from the bargain menu. As I drove back toward the street I glanced up and down to see if I could see that fancy sports car, but of course it was gone. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I would have done had I seen it. I felt that I owed the young woman an apology for having judged her harshly. But my judgment hadn’t gone any further than the comfortably padded confines of my four-door sedan. The only one who had been offended or diminished by my condemnatory crossness — momentary though it may have been — was me.

That’s often the way it is, isn’t it? We tell a crude joke or make an inappropriate comment to or about someone else, or we criticize others for situations and circumstances beyond their control, and the greatest harm that is done is to ourselves. Our hearts are less tender, our souls are less pure, and our minds are more cynical and less optimistic.

“The true genius,” said the poet Edgar Allen Poe, who had firsthand knowledge of genius, “usually prefers silence to saying something that isn’t everything it should be.”

Or even thinking it.

Perceived rudeness notwithstanding.

To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr