Shifting from second to third gear along the Lakeshore, releasing the clutch and hand still on the stick shift, aiming for cruising speed, at least until the next group of lights. But it was not to be. The red thing tore up behind me out of nowhere, then magically appeared beside me on the right, trying to pass. On the right. A red Dodge Ram truck, driver: female, likely early 30s. On the phone and in a hurry. Knowing — knowing — it was the wrong thing to do, I raised my chin a bit and pressed down on the gas pedal quickly hitting 12 kilometres over the speed limit. Definitely ticket territory. There was no freaking way I was letting her in. Not with that attitude. And then a little bell dinged in my head. I dropped back to the speed limit: ashamed. I silently apologized to the woman in the big Dodge Ram. What on earth did I think I was doing?
In truth I was not thinking, and that was the problem.
Yes, it irks me that people talk on the phone while they are driving. NOTHING is that important unless the gods are calling you directly, and I suspect that were that to happen, the contact would NOT be by cell phone. And yes, it is dangerous to not focus when you are driving a 2,000+ pound machine that can kill and maim. And yes, bad road etiquette is reaching pandemic levels. Never mind the fact that on any given day on the road in Ontario, (according to a Canadian study a few years ago by what is now CAMH) a good number of people behind the wheel are impaired in some way, either from lack of sleep; prescription and/or illegal drugs; alcohol; depression or many other things that steal their attention away from the task at hand, which seems to have been forgotten amongst drivers in North America — driving safely from point A to point B.
Still, none of that accounts for nor excuses my reaction, characterized as it was by profoundly immature and downright dumb behaviour; behaviour that was just as bad, just as rude as Red Ram Woman, and in no way representative of the person I normally am nor aspire to be. As I drove along and pondered this, I remembered a little book I read about 10 years ago called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
The book tells of Frankl’s time in a concentration camp and his observations of people’s behaviours. Out of such a difficult time can come grace and beauty. It is a small book, dense with thought-provoking ideas and concepts. What has stayed with me over the years is this: the space between action and reaction. He points out that no matter what happens in life, including being in a concentration camp, ultimately the only freedom we have, the only choice we can exercise, is what our response will be.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Choose your response. Well, hardly. Not when you are the only perfect driver on the road and feeling very self-righteous about it because you are driving perfectly, plagued as you inevitably are by locust-like swarms of bad drivers who are either shaving, putting on make-up, eating, reading (reading!!! seriously), playing the trumpet, (okay a pocket trumpet, but seriously?!) talking on the phone or texting, kissing, dressing — everything AND driving.
Choose your response: It’s not simple when you have innocently (perhaps) gone looking to see what you ex is up to, and learned something that you really didn’t need to know anymore, and that bile rises, unleashing a desire to wreak some havoc because it is just one more thing that proves you were right all along.
Choose your response: It’s not simple when the parking meter person gets you because you are five minutes past your allotted time and you are getting a ticket and for goodness sake, it is only five minutes, can’t I catch a break?? And you start swearing in languages you had no idea you knew and using expressions that would make a Madame blush.
Choose your response: It’s not simple when words come racing out at you like arrows and lances and maces from the lips of the one who is supposed to care for you above all others, and you retreat into that nautilus shell you cannot give up just in case you need refuge away from.
Choose your response and over time it can only become more natural to pause before going to the dark side of self. Conscious living I think it’s called. And because fo that, I have taken Frankl’s notion to heart. I like the freedom to choose a response that leaves acknowledges the truth, that does not diminish one’s self in any way, that also leaves others intact and honoured. I confess to not always getting it right. It takes discipline. It takes self-awareness. Or what Buddhist traditions call mindfulness. And it is stunningly hard work, but I hear tell that it can become a habit of mind. So, no, it is not easy to choose which response. But, whoever said living was easy? Or the things that happen while living, for example, dealing with:
a) inherently narcissistic people
b) business leaders who are lost
c) managers who are frightened
d) driving in Toronto
e) being alive at this time in the history of our world
f) writing a paper for school
g) dealing with parents or children
k) natural and man-made disasters
n) bad sitcoms
o) unruly hair
p) egos on legs
q) pickles up butts, and
r) all the above at once, and so much more.
If it is true that we have a prefrontal cortex that gives us the higher brain functioning of self-awareness and consciousness of self, and reflection, then the notion of using it to exercise freedom of choice rather than the reptilian instincts still buried in our brain somewhere makes some sense to me. Just please don’t cut me off as you read your magazine and eat french fries while you’re driving down the Don Valley Parkway: I will SO freaking growl at you.