This morning I had to fight my way across four lanes of traffic at a difficult intersection. I was exiting the highway, running on empty, trying to make it to the nearest gas station. I slipped into the traffic and turned right, just ahead of a tan SUV. The light just ahead was red, so I coasted up to it slowly, with the SUV riding close behind.
At the light, the tan SUV driver changed lanes and pulled up next to me. He gestured from behind his window, mouthing words of agitation. I felt a rush of anger. I looked at the man, categorizing him without conscious thought: Older, clean-cut and conservative, and (at least according to my eyes) patriarchal and authoritarian. In the past, by reflex, I would have cursed him out; I would have reacted to his anger, letting his emotional state leap over and influence mine. Instead, I smiled.
“Does your car have a turn signal? Do you know how to use it? Next time, do it!” He shouted his words out and rolled up his window.
I managed to stay calm, maintained a friendly expression and called out, “Sorry.”
As the light changed, he sped off. And then–a block down the road–he changed lanes without using a turn signal…
I finally found a gas station and refuelled. I was working on my emotions, trying to experience them, acknowledge them, trying not to suppress them, but also trying to avoid allowing them to dominate me…I wanted to reflect and feel, rather than acting.
I let all the tension slip out and made several mental notes:
* I hadn’t used a turn signal and I should have. (I normally do.)
* Earlier in the morning, I myself had gotten angry at another driver. So I really couldn’t blame the driver of the tan SUV for getting angry with me…people in shared space often feel anger toward one another.
* I’ve yelled at people while sitting at a light, with my emotions running wild. So I couldn’t really blame the other man for yelling at me while angry. It happens.
* In the same way I had categorized him, making a gross generalization, he had probably done the same; my appearance might have irritated him, complicating the encounter between us.
* It’s possible that the man in the tan SUV had recently undergone some major stress, was in physical pain, has a shitty life, et al. In other words, according to my values, some compassion might be in order.
* Usually, I get pissed off because something scares me, implying a threat; events like this trigger a fight-or-flight response. It helps me to ask whether I am actually in jeopardy, or whether I am reacting to some false sense of danger. (Usually, in the modern world, it’s the latter.)
* In the past, I know I would literally have raced after the other driver, cursed him out, driven aggressively around him, and escalated the situation, emotionally. (Creating *actual* danger.)
This man was hypocritical in several ways. He acted rudely. He was the sole person in a gas-guzzling vehicle twice as large as mine. But I’ve done *all* of those same things. At some point in my life, I’ve shared those same behaviors, so what sense does it make for me to exaggerate his “guilt?”
Instead, I simply chose not to obsess over the situation. I chose to acknowledge that I was angry, then I let it go. You can’t live without anger; it’s part of the human state of being. And you can’t exist around other people without getting pissed off. However, we all have a choice about how we actually react.
This is me, throwing a temper tantrum at something like 2 or 3 years of age. And that’s my dad, watching.