A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, gripping the steering wheel with what I have to assert was the strongest grasp of my life. I was packed into an exit ramp full of approximately one million angry drivers beeping their horns and waving their hands (and specific fingers on said hands) out their windows: It was 5PM rush hour in New York City. I’d missed my turn, and many turns before it, and I was broken out into a half-heat, half-stress full-body sweat, waiting to merge onto yet another highway of what seemed to be a stream of never-ending cars. I could be stuck here for hours, days, even. I was, in the truest sense, panicked.
Despite the chaos around me and the many cars whizzing by without a second thought to their surroundings, one man passing through quickly caught my eye and waved me along, welcoming me into the rush hour traffic with a single gesture: ta-da, it seemed to say. Without a moment to think twice, I waved back, grateful (sort of?), knowing I was finally headed in the right direction, going towards home.
I spent a lot of time on the road that evening, cars inching along in sections of construction, clouded over by a haze of dust, watching everyone creep by, eyes tired, exhausted from the day and the prospect of repeating it again tomorrow.
There is something about a moment like this, a moment of the perfectly mundane daily task of sitting in traffic, stifling yawns, contemplating your to-do lists and your life, that could, if we let it, strike a sense of unity among us. We are, after all, in the same position (more or less) and stuck out here together, at least for the time being. We understand each other, at least right now, don't we? So why is it that most of us (self-included, mind you) instead see these moments as obvious opportunities to hate each other, to consider the crowd a personal inconvenience rather than one thing we all have in common? Rather than morphing into the worst versions of ourselves, wouldn’t it make more sense to show a little compassion, to see yourself in the stressed face of a mother picking up her kids or a hospital worker returning from a nightmarish double shift?
Still, despite this thought, and despite the fact that it’s something I considered off and on throughout my two hour trek back to New Jersey, I still found myself irritated by the presence of others, by the needs of others, by the intrusion of their cars into my own path of fury, my own life. I was hungry, it was getting later, I had to pee, I was fuming over the $45 parking ticket that taunted me from my dashboard earlier that afternoon. Why? Because I could only see me. I could see me and my car, my needs, my smallness, my immediate wants. I wasn’t worried about anyone else. Not their safety, not what they were going home to, not what they were coming away from, not how hard their days had been, not how worried they were about paying the bills or confronting their husbands or providing for their kids. I could only see me.
I couldn't even see the recent memory of only an hour or so before in the kind eyes of the stranger who waved me along, who put my fear and my misery before his own craving for home.
Which, along with my recent talk with Tony Tjan on the value of community, helped inform a wave of clarity on how we can strive to become more generous. It’s not a revelatory thought. It’s not even a new thought. But if we can be willing to give up our intrinsic sense of self-importance, to acknowledge that maybe our own needs are not the most urgent, the most pressing of all things, then we stand at a crossroads that presents a direction quite unlike the very ME obsessed society we currently occupy. In the busiest places, in the most physically crowded of places, even in New York City, we can often feel very, very alone. And so we’re here and we’re given the opportunity to choose, all the time, in every moment, in situations that will lead us nowhere and in circumstances that might change everything:
Are we going to pretend not to notice each other and keep on passing by, or will we look up, just for a second, and choose to let each other in?
Further reading (and watching):
- Do you dare to find happiness in traffic?
- Forgiveness, its own form of generosity, will change your life.
- How cycling can make us more compassionate.
- The Power Of Empathy.
- We say some awful stuff when we're behind the wheel.
- A video tribute David Foster Wallace's This Is Water.
- From Fabian Pfortmüller, How To Not Be Lonely In NYC.
Helen Williams is the Community Love Director at Holstee. She is passionate about cooking and writing which pair well together on her vegetarian food blog, green girl eats. She's strives, every day, to be less sorry.
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