Saturday, February 11, 2012

Road Rage

THE OTHER MORNING the boys and I were on our usual commute heading down Bradford Rd when we reached the intersection at Melbourne and had to stop to make a left, because there were two other cars on hand, one heading toward us and another on the right poised to cross at the stop sign. After the oncoming car had passed, I motioned with my hand to the woman in the other one to go ahead, but she hesitated for a second -- enough time to make me think she was determined that I go first -- so I moved the car a little as if I would go first instead. But then she countered by simultaneously moving a few feet as well. So I quickly braked and again politely signaled to her to cross.

Every experienced driver has been in this situation, broadly speaking the point in life when things either get generously comic or selfishly tragic. Unfortunately, this was one of the latter moments.

In her SUV the young woman, let's call her Ms X, proceeded to have a demonstrably ugly freak-out episode, mouthing what I'm fairly certain was something along the lines of, 'What the f#$@, are you retarded? Why the hell didn't you go in the first place?!' Then she furiously crossed the intersection and -- after nipping in the bud a similarly unseemly knee-jerk vocal reaction of my own (yes, this thing is highly infectious) -- I unintentionally followed her car for a few minutes all the way to what turned out was our common destination, the Highland View Elementary School child drop off crescent. Georgetown University and NPR bumper stickers prominently branding her rear window. Ms X should have been embarrassed, having moments earlier been on the verge of road rage, now that we were actually less than two degrees of separation from being on a first name basis. Exiting her smart utility vehicle in order to dispense with her child, Ms X either acted as if she was unaware that I was in the car directly behind her or, what's more likely, hadn't even noticed I was there. If a product of a different generation or upbringing, I might have done the same and confronted her with an in-kind mean-spirited tirade, or perhaps mocked her with exaggerated friendliness. Naturally I did neither, but the whole thing gave me pause for thought....

In this day and age, particularly around dense urban areas, people seem to be suffering from a social disease, the primary symptom being a compulsion to do everything as fast as possible with rude contempt for anyone standing in the way of their uncompromising agenda. When queued up for anything. Especially when driving.

'Don't even think about taking that parking spot, because I got here first and there's a sale on at COSCO!', yells one irate potential consumer.

'I've got a dissertation deadline today, so don't delay me from getting my child to kindergarten!', threatens a desperate housewife.

Here's a few general reflections on this prevalent malaise.

First, at the root of this illness is the defining spirit of Western culture per se, especially of the American sort, which grossly over-values material possessions and achievements at the expense of spiritual betterment. We are -- most of us anyway -- not genuinely happy in this life, because we are constantly striving to possess more things, be more knowledgeable and successful. This is best exemplified in the popular concept of death, namely that it is not really an end to life, or nothingness, but the beginning of some rarefied perpetuity of it. Consider one obvious logical consequence of this absurd misconception: if, in effect, life never ends, what reason do we have to be responsible about our behavior in the here and now? I mean, who really believes that they are going to Hell (or Santa will leave coal in your stocking)? Overall as a culture we stand to be improved by something like the philosophy of Buddhism, with its requirement of meditation and aims of inner tranquility/peaceful coexistence.

Another related phenomenon in our culture is a prevalent individualistic/solipsistic modus operandi. Seemingly isolated in our mobile steel bubbles, shooting up Morning Edition, many people seem to behave as if they're the sole inhabitants of the world. Other drivers are not human beings, fellow members of the PTA, but merely objectifications, obstacles that stand in the way of our next purchase or appointment. I wonder, would Ms X have been so rude to me if she had known that her child was in the same class as one of my sons? We could all benefit from more awareness of our surroundings, forethought about the consequences of our actions, respect for others, and some genuine shame and sincere contrition for the wrong things that we inevitably do.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, over the course of the past half century there has been a precipitous decline in basic manners and etiquette, something mirrored in a gradual slide of language -- and along with it education -- into a state of almost abject poverty. The reason for this being a breakdown in proper discipline and instruction from parents and teachers. This characteristic of our age, more than any other, accounts for the sort of widespread incivility that I experienced the other morning.

To conclude, as western culture, its habits and morals become more the norm across the globe, what I've been writing about seems increasingly universal. So my final word: everyone, everywhere please slow down, take a deep breath, be more considerate of others, and try to be content with each and every moment of life.