I was at the library, pretending to write. The man at the table across from me was on a Zoom call, and he was loud. Pushing fifty and sunburnt. Fancy haircut in a pink polo and khakis. He brayed into his laptop about quarterlies and metrics and clickthrough rates.

Hearing half of a conversation hijacks the brain: it struggles to fill in the gaps so it can file away the voices as background noise. But it can’t. Or at least mine can’t.

So I became convinced this sunburn with teeth was the avatar of the utter lack of care or even bare-minimum awareness of other human beings that has poisoned public life. This was the antichrist, I thought. Yes, this man was what the end of civilization looked like.

I decided to say something. But first, I needed to make sure the people were with me. A woman two tables away nodded in the man’s direction and rolled her eyes. Good enough. I was ready to stand up. Tell him to knock it off. The muscle fibers in my thighs twitched, about to rise.

Then a child appeared.

I don’t know anything about children, but this one was three feet tall, and I think it was a girl, although it was difficult to say because a bandage was wrapped around her bald head and her skin was grey save for the purple rings under her eyes. She wore a gown with a chunk cut out to accommodate a machine that sent tubes into her nose, and she cradled an armful of books as she toddled up to the antichrist’s table, grinning so wide it made me smile too. “Daddy, look at all the cool books I found!”

I hung my head, and when I looked up again, the antichrist had become a saint. An exhausted father just trying to do his job while looking after his sick kid.

I thanked something I don’t quite believe in for saving me from myself and sparing that child from a scene of me haranguing her dad about civility. I made a promise to do my best to treat everyone as if they're dealing with something heavy. Because they are.

But it’s hard. Hating that man was easy. I enjoyed it. I could have turned up the volume on my music and focused on my work. Instead, I removed my headphones to be more fully annoyed. Why?

Because righteousness feels good. Righteousness is intoxicating, oftentimes addictive, because it provides a sense of purpose, even when its premise is false. And this is far more likely to lead us to societal collapse than some middle manager on a Zoom call at the library.