March 2, 2011

Drive my car

I knew I was teasing the beast when I posted the Bertrand Russell quote about religion as my status on Facebook last week, but I never expected the epic thread of (150+) comments that followed. While many of my facebos (virtual friends) are sensitive to the belief systems of others (I’m sure most of them aren’t the slightest bit concerned what anybody else believes, for instance), the thread went off the rails when one commenter started digging his heels in on the idea that anyone who didn’t believe in God or an afterlife (or something along those lines) was essentially already dead.

Personally, I was encouraged by this position, because, as I explained in a previous column, Buddhist philosophy embraces the transitory nature of our circumstances in terms of accepting “brokenness.” Essentially, anything that lives is bound to die, and is thus “already dead.” But agreeing with this fellow wasn’t going to prevent the torrent of angry words that followed.

The point of contention seemed to be that the “non-believers” (and I am making an assumption here, because their position was never really stated exactly) were offended that the “believer” was apparently disregarding their value as “living beings” because they did not believe. For the most part, it seemed most of the comments were designed to help the “believer” engage a position that would not enrage those around him; we weren’t trying to change his mind so much as encouraging him to engage a higher level of empathy. It didn’t work.

A couple days later, another friend posted, as part of their status update, a lamentation about civility in America. Someone tagged a link to a blogger’s post about dietary guidelines with a request that anyone posting comments “be respectful.” The inherent assumption that the following thread would get ugly but for such a request left my friend disgusted and screaming (all caps), “CIVILITY IS DEAD IN AMERICA!”

The conversation that followed included a reference to the “online disinhibition effect,” the tendency to behave in an uncivil manner because we aren’t dealing with one another face to face and are thus able to escape the immediate ramifications of such rudeness.

I think this detachment goes back even further. Long before the age of personal computers, automobiles created a social buffer that has, perhaps, done more damage to our ability to communicate empathetically than any other human invention.

As much as I hate car-based metaphors (one of the reasons why Bruce Springsteen isn’t higher on my list of all-time favorite songwriters), I have to cop to an inappropriate position that I tend to recognize in my driving behavior. I joke about it; I say I can recognize bad drivers because they are the ones who are anywhere near me when I am driving. If they are in front of me, they are going too slow. If they are behind me, they are going too fast. If they are next to me, they aren’t going fast or slow enough to keep traffic moving. Inevitably, they do not use their turn signals sufficiently. This is a terribly dangerous activity, and they simply aren’t paying enough attention!

And then I catch myself needing to change lanes without signaling properly, and I have to call myself out. “Who’s the asshole, now?” I ask. The other driver can’t hear me chastise myself, and I suppose it’s possible they wouldn’t be offended, because I was three car lengths ahead when I did it, but I still say, “I’m sorry” quietly under my breath.

But why would I assume they would cuss me? Is my little game of “playfully” cussing other drivers for their innumerable offenses clouding my judgment? Maybe they are inclined to observe my transgression with the grace I hope to give others. Aren’t we all just people doing our best under less than ideal circumstances? Aren’t we all on the same road? The same journey?

Perhaps if I am to see the world I want to live in, I need to assume the other driver is likewise remorseful for cutting me off or didn’t realize they were holding the passing lane when I was in a hurry. Peace to you, fellow traveler, may you arrive at your destination safely.

For further consideration: If you missed Bill Hicks Day (the 17th anniversary of the comedian’s death) last Saturday, Feb. 26, spend some time with Hicks’ recordings, interviews or concert videos on YouTube.

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