The signs of increasing incivility have made the news during these pandemic years: the surly passengers on airlines verbally and physically attacking flight attendants, the confrontations in public places over masking, the shouting matches at school board meetings. I've seen hints of toxic behavior myself lately: the guy in front of me in a grocery line who swore not so quietly when the frail elderly woman ahead of him was taking longer to pay and exit than he would have liked; the Karen at a fast food restaurant who berated the frazzled young woman at the counter for pausing as she counted out her change.
And I had a close encounter with such toxic impatience this morning as I was driving my husband Bob to a Phoenix hospital at 5:30 a.m. for surgery. It was a cold, very dark predawn morning. Since the pandemic has limited our social activities including theatre going, I haven't driven any significant distance at night for several years. What I noticed this morning, with some alarm, was that my night vision has deteriorated significantly. I struggled to see lane lines, especially in the glare of oncoming headlights in the early morning commuter traffic to Phoenix. Usually a fast and confident driver, I stuck to the speed limit this morning and, on occasional sharp curves, slightly below the speed limit.
On one of these curves, on a busy freeway interchange, it happened. A car roared past me on the right shoulder of the road, just at the sharpest point in the curve. Then the driver cut in front of me and slammed on his brakes. I had to brake suddenly and hard to avoid a collision. Fortunately, no one was following close behind me. The toxically impatient driver, having made his point, sped off. And I continued on to the hospital, my hands uncharacteristically slick with sweat and shaking on the steering wheel.
"Road rage," Bob said, exhaling slowly, his surgery anxiety temporarily secondary to his concern about our safety on the road.
It could have been catastrophic if I hadn't been able to stop in time, if the person behind me had been tailgating. I was driving my small Honda Fit amid hulking SUVs and now was feeling suddenly vulnerable. I've driven this little car solo between my home in Arizona and Los Angeles many times, cruising comfortably at top speed among semi-trucks for the full 500 miles. But I've always taken my long driving trips during daylight hours sharing the road with truckers and vacationers rather than pre-dawn commuters. I've heard of road rage incidents, but have never experienced one until now.
I wondered how much time our road rager really saved by passing me and if making his point felt worth the considerable risk.
When we got to the hospital, we saw huge signs both in the admission and the pre-surgical waiting areas:
"THIS HOSPITAL IS A HEALING PLACE. WE WILL NOT TOLERATE DISRUPTIVE, RUDE BEHAVIOR."
And I felt sad that such warnings were necessary.
When did we start getting so toxically impatient with rules and with each other?
When did some people decide to punish and terrify a slower driver rather than simply sigh and change lanes? When did common courtesy and civility in public places slip into churlishness and worse? When did compassion and respect for differences start to disappear?
I've been thinking about how much energy it takes to be angry and oppositional, to judge and humiliate rather than take a deep breath and try to understand.
Yes, other people can be annoying whether they're taking longer at the cash register or driving slower on the road. The elderly person walking slowly with a cane down a parking lot aisle can hold you up for a minute or two. The young mother with a screaming toddler in tow in a grocery line almost certainly wishes even more than you do that her child would calm down. Is an annoyance worth cursing, road rage, honking, dirty looks or hurtful words?
What if we could, more often than not, manage patience and compassion? Would it ruin our day to let a mother with a crying child go ahead of us in the line? Or wait as an old person, walking heavily on a cane to his car, temporarily blocks our way to a prime parking spot? After all, most of us have suffered through our own past experiences with toddlers having public meltdowns. And most of us are or will be old someday. A bit of empathy can spare the nerves on both sides.
At the same time, knowing or imagining a raging person's back story can help us to calm down and move on. I'm trying to imagine how the day started for the person who risked our lives and his with his road rage this morning. Perhaps he was transitioning from a miserable home life to a job he hates, frantic to be on time. His toxic impatience may be making his life difficult at every juncture and rather than look inward, he blames everyone else. One could call him an asshole or a jerk. But angry labels can't fully explain such behavior or help to soothe one's spirit in the aftermath.
Now that my hands have stopped shaking, now that Bob's surgeon has let me know that his thyroid surgery went well and that, after an overnight stay, he will be ready to come home tomorrow, I think about our earlier brush with road rage from a more measured perspective.
I need to see my ophthalmologist about my impaired night vision and avoid driving at night or in the predawn hours whenever possible. I need to forgive that rage-filled driver for my own peace of mind and be thankful that I have never encountered anyone like him before in my sixty years of driving -- much of it in fierce L.A. traffic. And I need to let gratitude suffuse my spirit: that I avoided the accident, that Bob is recovering, that I am safely home.