Driving for Goodness’ Sake

Coming up to the intersection, I saw that the oncoming driver was in a pickle.  He had started to make a left hand turn in front of me and was blocking part of my lane, but he was stopped because the cars ahead of him were backed up.  I could tell he was stuck and wouldn’t be able to clear my lane before I got there.  He tried to back up, but there were other left-turners behind him.  He had no place go. 

I could have honked or given him a scolding look as I drove by.  After all, he was in the wrong.  But instead, I slowed down and gave him the peace sign as I eased my way around.  He acknowledged with a nod and a smile.  It was a small thing, a gentle courtesy instead of a haughty gesture.  But who knows how it affected the rest of his day.  For me, the exchange felt great and lightened my mood. 

It was a good reminder of the many small choice points we have throughout the day to act from our basic nature of goodness. 

If we all drove our cars with the same manners we use when walking, our lives would be safer and less stressful.  For example, we have all had the experience of trying to merge with traffic and having other drivers speed up to get ahead, blocking the way.  Can you imagine the pedestrian equivalent, say, approaching an elevator?  Would people run ahead to shoulder you aside, braying in horn-like shouts, ME FIRST – ME FIRST!, fighting to push the buttons before you could reach them?  No, we don’t do that when we are in direct contact with people.

What happens to us when we get into an automobile?  Why do our bad tendencies rise to the fore and our goodness take, well, a back seat?  I think it is the fact that the shell of the car separates us from others allowing us to feel anonymous and therefore less accountable. 

When we see ourselves as separate, our competitive instincts rise up and we start acting like we are in a video game defending our space against all comers.  In this distorted view, we see other drivers as hulks of metal getting in our way.  We don’t see them as humans with their own schedules and needs and a right to be sharing the road with us.

But we can sometimes break through this distorted image, like when we make eye contact with a driver and wave and they acknowledge you and let you in.  They are reminded, “Oh yeah, a person, come on in neighbor.”  When that happens, whether as giver or receiver of kindness, we remember that this is the bigger, truer part of your nature.

These examples illustrate two basic ways we tend to operate in the world.  One sees ourselves primarily as separate and is oriented toward our individual concerns.  This way of operating tends to be self-centered, putting our needs ahead of the needs of others.  Driving is the perfect set up for making people “the other,” and therefore justifying our selfish behavior.  The other mode is oriented primarily toward connection and is capable of balancing our desires with those of others.  Instead of self-centered, it is relationship-centered. 

Driving might be the single best practice for how to steer through life (is that another driving metaphor?).  Driving is like life, after all:  we all have needs that are sometimes in conflict with others; we appear on the surface to be separate self-contained bubbles but we are really interconnected; and, it would all go better if we could cooperate and remember that we are all in this together. 

Taking others needs into account along with our own leads to better outcomes and a more satisfying life.  This is because our relationship-centered way of being is our core nature and our self-centeredness is a kind of forgetting of who we really are.

Me?  I am not a patient driver by nature.  I usually cram more things into my day than I should and am running to the car at the last minute with multiple errands or just-enough-time to make it to the dentist.  But I know this about myself and I have tried in recent years to drive in a way that creates space, both internally and externally.  When I am successful, I drive safer and feel better.  Like with the guy who was blocking my lane in the example above. 

On my good days, I am aware of my natural impatience and instead of rushing into traffic, I try to make extra space for other drivers on the road.  If I see someone trying to get into my lane, I slow down and let them in.  If someone is tailgating or swerving across lanes to move ahead, I put on the brakes and create extra room for everyone.  I have also started giving the peace sign to drivers around me – using extra care to make sure they don’t think it is a different hand gesture, one they were probably expecting.

Changing your approach to driving could become an engine (I did it again) for personal growth.  What better practice could there be for developing our sense of courtesy, service and compassion?  The traffic jam as sangha; the freeway as path to freedom.  (Ooh, those are good too). 

How we drive is a choice point – we can choose to be self-centered or relationship-centered.  When we choose connection, we align ourselves with our better nature.  We model the way for other drivers, creating a little more space for their goodness to show up.  Never underestimate your ability to influence others with your good intentions and behavior.

Interested in trying this on for size?  Try these ideas the next time you get in the car:

  • Try to see others on the road as people, not cars. Imagine you are all on bikes.
  • View everyone on the road as a community, all working toward a larger common good.  In a way, we are:  people are taking kids to school, working in the economy, visiting elderly relatives, picking up prescriptions for a friend.  Yes, some are going to the movies for a laugh or out with friends for drinks, but that helps the community too, right?
  • Sense your connection to the sea of other drivers out there who are trying to move toward what they want, each with their own joys and irritations, just like you.  Send them a wish for success and a little peace along the way.
  • Signal your lane changes far in advance, giving others a chance to show the courtesy of their higher selves; don’t be disappointed if they don’t, they may come around eventually.
  • Give people the peace sign.  Just do it carefully, so as not to sow confusion.

Photo by Musa Haef on Unsplash

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