As a truck driver, I'd had a couple close calls driving aggressively and long ago decided I better lay off. I first fixed that by aggressively preventing other drivers from being aggressive. Sounds logical, right? Eventually, I just went through a phase of really resenting the drivers who were aggressive, or ignorant of the finer points of traffic law, or just plain stupid. Really, it was about how I was a better driver than them. It was probably always something like that. Finally, I've reached the point where I am just bewildered by how some people drive. I'm not perfect, of course, but I've improved my intention.
The “crucible of reactivity” was going to be the perfect excuse for me occasionally losing my shit behind the steering wheel. Every once in a while it creeps up on me. And then I heard an old Zen story. Old Zen stories will always get you. The good ones are so stripped down, so human, that you can immediately recognize yourself in one of the characters. This Zen story is in two parts. In the first, you are out fishing in your canoe when you start to feel a little sleepy. You drop an anchor and lie down to take a quick nap. Just as you're about to drift off to sleep, you feel a great clunk and jump up to see that another fisherman has carelessly run his canoe into yours. “What the hell are you doing? Are you stupid? You're a danger to all of us out here?” [sound familiar?]
The second story is nearly the same, you are out fishing in your canoe when you discover that you're a little sleepy. You drop an anchor and lie down to take a quick nap. Just as you're about to drift off to sleep, you feel a great clunk and jump up! “What the … oh.” Its a log that has drifted down the river and bumped into your boat. You lie back down and take a peaceful nap.
What is the difference between the other fisherman and the log? Absolutely nothing. We have no more control over the behavior of the other fisherman than we have of the log. We can try to argue, like I was going to about other drivers, that the other fisherman should be polite, be responsible, follow the rules. Can we ever make someone else follow the rules? Or especially, can we make them follow the rules in the way that we would want them to?
We can't. We also don't have any idea what is on the other fisherman's mind or what's going on in his the life. There are a thousand things that could be on his mind stressing him to distraction. Can we blame him? Can we expect him to do what we want?
Then why are we giving the log a pass and not the other fisherman?
I was driving south on I-95 through Georgia, minding my own business, listening to podcasts from the Secular Buddhist Association. It just happened to be the very last exit in Georgia, when two vehicles were coming down the entrance ramp; a full size pickup followed by a well kept, old style Jeep Cherokee. Now, with well over a million miles on the road, I don't move over for anyone anymore. It is their job to blend into the highway traffic from the ramp. Truck speed limits are lower than those for cars, so I am going slower anyway. Further, it seems to me that it is safer to maintain a constant speed and stay in one place.
The pickup truck accelerated and entered the highway well in front of me. The Jeep, however, waited until he was almost out of room and had to brake hard in order to get behind me. The fool must have been texting, I thought to myself. To make matters worse, just as we cleared a rise in the highway, a construction sign told me the right lane was closed ahead. I signaled, merged left and then saw the Jeep coming around me. He's not happy, I thought to myself. After the lane never closed, I merged back to the right for the Florida Agricultural Inspection Station; the first “exit” in Florida.
Just ahead of me, a four wheel vehicle entered the inspection station. That's weird, I thought to myself. As I entered the station, the four-wheeler stopped at the guard shack, talked to the officer and pulled ahead to park. Oh, he must work here, I thought to myself. It never occurred to me that vehicle was the same damned Cherokee from Georgia.
I stopped at the Ag station window to report that I was just carrying freight for Walmart; nothing agricultural. He nodded and with a grimace, asked me to pull over up ahead to the left. This had never happened before, I thought to myself. I slowly pulled up to the wide spot in the drive and the guy from the Cherokee was standing there, in uniform, fuming. Huh … to myself.
As I rolled to a stop, the officer guy walked around behind my trailer and vigorously motioned for me to get out. I could almost see tiny wisps of smoke twisting in the air above each of his ears.
“What was going on back there? You should be glad that happened in Georgia, because I really feel like writing some tickets right now. In fact, I should call them, up there in Georgia, and have somebody come down and write you up? I could have hit the passenger side of your truck, you know. It's a good thing that I am a quick driver and I could get into the emergency lane,” he spewed all in one breath.
I may be a little slow, but I knew right then and there, I had to play this cool. Not just cool, like smooth, but I had to feign to grovel for this creep because he was a pissed off wannabe cop. If he had actually hit my truck, it was not going to somehow end up my fault. If he was such a talented driver, it would seem that he would have judged the situation more clearly and either sped up or slowed down while he still had room on the entrance ramp. I still think he had been texting.
I apologized. I explained that I never intended to do anything to him personally. I told him sincerely that when traffic is blending, it is safer for me to stay where I am and maintain my speed. In my humble opinion, I said. The cruise control was engaged, I added. And I apologized again.
When I put my hands in my pockets in my best humble-George-Costanza-look, all I got was “KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE 'EM!” I stayed calm, apologetic, and moved rather slowly.
He must have got the hidden message within my groveling. For each time I mentioned “blending traffic”, his lizard brain lurched in recognition. He would never confess, especially to me, but I think he began to realize he was way out on a limb. If he was going to push the issue and I didn't roll over but decided to push back, somewhere along the line he was going to have to explain how he got all the way down to the end of an entrance ramp so close to a semi trailer that he had to brake hard to prevent an accident.
I took a small slice of comfort in that I stayed out of the fracas he seemed to want. I kept my own lizard brain sitting on its hands. Presumably, the officer would have loved to have provoked a reaction from me so that he could indeed start writing some tickets. Or better yet, get out those handcuffs he probably dreams about using.
However, four days later, I am still spinning my story to make him sound like a thug. The truth of the story is likely somewhere a little closer to the middle, but I am continue to struggle with my own reaction. I will admit I am somewhat hypersensitive to an authority figure with a shitty attitude; especially a cop. Nevertheless, I truly think that he was simply angry, overreacting and abusing his position of authority for a purely personal reason. That does not change the fact, but actually highlights very well that I have a lot of work to do. Maybe I shouldn't be telling the story at all, but I definitely should not have had to carry it with me; rethinking it for days. I cannot change his reaction to the situation but I should be able to control my own.