Joey Garcia’s guide on how to be a better, kinder person behind the wheel
The SN&R advice columnist revs into 2015 with some insight and navigation tips on how to be a better, kinder person on the road
With apologies to French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: Hell isn't other people; it's other drivers. Drivers like me. Or the old me, anyway.
Although my passion is to live fully from a refined set of spiritual principles, I frequently drive too fast. I've also honked in frustration at motorists who I've decided are not up to speed. A few years back, when another motorist and I collided, I remained convinced it was not my fault, despite the insurance adjustor's assessment to the contrary.
One of my guiding life principles is from Zen Buddhism: “How you do anything is how you do everything.” By applying this ancient wisdom to driving, my ego skidded to a stop. The problem is not other drivers; it is my pattern of overdoing, of trying to squeeze 60 minutes from a half-hour. Or as a friend observed: “You’re always leaving when you should be arriving.” It’s true; I often walked out of my house at the time I was scheduled to be at my destination, leading to me hurtling along the streets in Indy 500 mode.
Finally, I began meditating on which part of my ego navigates when I’m behind the wheel of my Honda Civic. When the healthy ego is present, love for neighbor is balanced with love for self.
Other times, the wounded ego is the driving force, responding to perceived slights by becoming a bully or behaving like a victim or letting the mind wander instead of staying present behind the wheel.
Along the way, I learned that common traffic violations offer character insights worth keeping on our radar. Here are a few revelations:
Speeding: Racing down the roadway feeds the self-important attitude that we are above respecting rules that apply to everyone else. We can shift that ego-centered focus by gifting ourselves the time we need for travel. Leaving the adrenaline-fueled frazzle behind is an act of self-love. We accept that we have done what we can to be responsible, but not everything is under our control.
Driving under the speed limit: When we putt-putt-putt along, we force other vehicles to abide by our preferences. It’s passive-aggressive driving and that’s why other drivers honk, tailgate or swerve dangerously as they change lanes to avoid us. Driving slower than the traffic flow causes others to understandably become angry at being controlled.
Changing lanes without signaling: Drivers who do this literally signal their untrustworthiness. Communication is key to healthy relationships in a community. Yes, sometimes other drivers take our signal as a cue to speed up and refuse to let us slip into their lane. But isn’t it better to be honest, even if other drivers are mean or oblivious?
Tailgating: In most situations, following another vehicle too closely is a self-centered demand for attention. Some people even feel a rush of adrenaline when they perpetuate the aggression. Instead of intimidating another driver, love your neighbor and change lanes. Otherwise, it’s like living in denial of your own power to leave a negative situation.
Under the influence of social media: Texting or talking by phone while driving represents a fear of aligning one’s mind, body and spirit in the present moment. Doing this we split our focus, avoiding the reality of the chaotic lives we created, and driving us deeper into denial. Spiritual disciplines, like hatha yoga, Buddhist meditation or Christian contemplation, when engaged daily, unify mind, body and spirit in the now.
Occupying two parking spaces or two lanes: Drivers struggling with low self-esteem compensate by trying to appear physically larger. Taking up more space that needed is a sign of a flabby thought process. Let’s remind ourselves that we are enough and there is space enough for everyone.
Red light violators: Racing through a red light fills some drivers with a sense of satisfaction at beating the system. But it also reveals their unwillingness to respect the social good by consistently balancing their own needs with the needs of the community. After all, saving two minutes is not worth the gamble of losing a life.
Blocking emergency vehicles: That motorist you see blatantly disregarding sirens is struggling with an inability to face serious problems. They haven’t learned a simple truth: Life includes the unexpected. By tuning out distress signals on the road, we ignore warnings that attempt to pierce our denial prior to full-blown personal crises, too. Tackling trouble as it arises strengthens our capacity to make wise and compassionate choices, leading to a significant drop in negative drama in our lives.
Driving sans seat belt: People who are anxious about other people’s expectations struggle with the inner conflict of desiring security but fearing entrapment. A better option? Release the belief that security is confining. Notice how life is enhanced when we feel secure and stable.
Littering: Drivers who trash roadways often fear that nothing matters, including themselves. With their self-esteem so low, they believe they deserve to live in garbage. After they clean out their self-hate, they will contribute to keeping our roads beautiful. The same is true for drivers who litter because they expect someone else clean up their messes.
Failure to yield: Competitive personalities jockey for the most powerful positions in work, love and on the road. Drivers who refuse to yield risk safety and social harmony to be first in line. Funny thing is, their failure to yield demonstrates an explicit lack of leadership skills. True leaders possess the humility and confidence to follow others when necessary. That includes following the flow of traffic.
Under the influence of alcohol or drugs: People who cannot manage the depth of their emotional history prefer to remain out of control. Drinking or drugging before driving permits these drivers to sleepwalk through life. Confronting their pain and healing it frightens them more than the possibility of causing harm or death. But it shouldn’t. Suffering invites us into the path of the wounded healer, the one who mends her or his own brokenness then shares the experience. Wounded healers transform the world.
Driving without insurance: Failure to maintain financial responsibility for a vehicle signifies a profound inability to believe in a future. Don’t confuse this with the spiritual experience of living in the moment. It’s a childish blindness that kills positive forward momentum. Change comes when we engage in a daily gratitude practice in which we remind ourselves how much we personally benefit from contributing our share for our community’s benefit.
Ultimately, steering attention to our daily commutes transforms driving into a spiritual practice. Every car trip becomes an opportunity to stop stumbling into attitudes and behaviors that traffic in aggression or distraction. Sure, there are emergencies that require us to be scofflaws—rushing a sick child to the emergency room, for example—but those superhero situations are extremely rare.
Ordinary moments reveal our truth: How we do anything is how we do everything.