The Guy in the Blue Saab
The traffic along I-94 was normal, flowing at its usual 70 miles-per-hour in this 55 mile-per-hour zone just south of Ann Arbor. And, as usual, I was in the left-hand lane, going with the faster traffic but not particularly pushing it. Another car was ten lengths ahead of me, and I held my distance. I was just passing a truck when I noticed the blue Saab coming up fast behind me. He flashed his headlights briefly.
Ahead, another truck was in the right lane. There was room between the two trucks, if I wanted to yield to the Saab, but it would have meant reducing my speed. I didnít want to.
The Saab had a sunroof, and the driver was clearly visible in my mirror. Man in his fifties, gray hair, sunglasses, large build, leaning to one side as though he were resting his right elbow on the console, driving stiff-armed with his left hand draped over the top of the steering wheel. He was only a few feet behind my bumper. "Screw him," I thought.
As soon as he barely passed the first truck, he whipped into the right lane. I felt my dander rise, and pressed down on the accelerator. My little Tracer, of course, didnít exactly leap forward. But the distance to the second truck was closing, even as the Saab moved easily past me and into my lane, his bumper inches in front of mine. I eased off without touching my brake.
Rage possessed me. I wanted to blow that Saab out of the water. With a little more effort, I thought, I could have closed on that truck enough that he couldnít get in, and I would have enjoyed seeing him nose down as he had to brake behind the truck and then, of course, whip back into my lane still behind me. But I had lost.
I took a deep breath and let it out. The Saab again went into the right lane just in front of the second truck, and sped off, clear of his temporary obstructions. I lost sight of him down the highway.
Why do I do that? Iím not ordinarily competitive. For some reason, I canít stand to have someone else get ahead of me, especially when they are rude. (Or drive new, fast cars.) Usually, I drive just a little faster than the flow of traffic, not pushing anyone, moving into the right lane whenever thereís enough space, letting the hot rods have their space, too. But when I sense a challenge, I suppose my testosterone gun goes off. Like, when traffic is backed up behind a construction zone and some character goes onto the shoulder to pass seventy-five other cars who are waiting patiently and courteously. I hate it. My impulse is to run them off the roadónever, never allow them back into the line of cars.
As I continued down the highway, conscious of a new conservatism in my driving, I thought of other people I have seen react in anger as I had done, striking out (often futilely) at others who had one-upped them somehow. Is it simply a part of our competitive culture? Let nobody get aheadólike the little old women I remembered from my childhood, elbowing each other to be first onto the streetcar?
In my encounter with the Saab, there was almost nothing to gain from my behavior. At best, I might have gained ten seconds in the completion of my trip. My urge, on the other hand, could have resulted in disaster. In that moment, my anger was a dangerous thing. But where did it come from? It didnít last long.
The "Oh, no you donít" mentality may be a male thing, the result of hormones. Winning and losing. "To the victor belong the spoils." But that doesnít explain the little old women at the streetcar stop. Is it an American characteristic? Is it part of what makes us strive to be the best, the first, and the most successful? Driving and cars, to Americans, are part of "success" and are powerful symbols of our competitive culture. Perhaps Iím more a product of my culture than I care to admit.
But I think thereís more to this than competitiveness. I donít usually drive that way. I drive as fast as I think I can get away with, but I donít see every other car as competition. And I donít believe itís the challenge represented by the arrogant Saab driver. Thereís no way I could compete with him, especially in my little car. It was his attitude that I reacted to with my "up yours!" response.
Does arrogance anger everyone? When the bureaucrat declares loftily, "You didnít fill out this form right," as if to say, "you dummy!" or when the desk clerk announces that your reservation must have been lost in the computer, and thereís nothing to be done about it, the trigger for your anger may not be so much the frustration as the impression that the person doesnít give a hoot for you.
And maybe the rancher who bulldozes open the mountain road that the federal land management people closed without explanation and without giving the local people the chance to express their opinions about it, is objecting as much to the attitude as to the act. The attitude may be just a perception, but thatís what is acted upon.
One could carry this line of thought much further.
When I depersonalize you; when I treat you as a number instead of a human being with feelings, I am depersonalizing myself in your eyes. I become a force to be resisted (if resistance is possible, under the circumstances). If it isnít possible to resist my force, you become a victim. The object of rape or assault or robbery is the victim of someone who doesnít care about the person. Even if an assault is the expression of anger, it is often anger toward someone else, the victim being just a faceless symbol.
A symbol may be a representative of a class. One Palestinian may symbolize the whole of a vague, impersonalized group of people an Israeli perceives as a threat to their own safety. Whatever the reality of the threat, the individual is not seen as a human being with feelings. When that individual perceives the depersonalized attitude toward her or him, the cycle becomes complete.
All right, I should try to understand the guy in the Saab. He treated me as an object that happened to get in his way, but he doesnít know me. Itís nothing personal. (Strangeówe use that expression "itís nothing personal" to excuse rude behavior, even to mitigate our judgment of violent behavior, when thatís what the problem is.) Better yet, I should try to engage him in a dialog so we can get to know each other. Unfortunately, he was in a hurry, and I donít think he would have stopped to chat.
So, whatís the bottom line? That old thing about "Do unto others as you would..." (yeah, that one)? "What goes around, comes around"? "So be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebodyís mother"? Or even that thing that Jesus was reported to have responded when someone asked him pretty much the same question, "That ye love one another."
Maybe an easier place to start would be, "that ye know one another."
Donald Skiff, May, 1995