Part of the Problem

As the boulevard approaches my college town, four eastbound lanes taper to three. It was 8:00 a.m. on a beautiful June day. Spring term had just ended. Half an hour earlier I had completed a third shift. I had much to do before I could sleep.

Anticipating the lane squeeze, I signaled and moved right, slowing to match the crowding pace of traffic. A vehicle sailed past me on the left, oblivious as to why all the other cars were migrating rightward. Suddenly he hit the brakes and began to barge in—without signaling. Annoyed, I honked the horn and swerved around him. No harm; just a scare. How can he be so clueless! I thought. Idiot!

In a couple of miles, the route dwindled to two lanes. The same car, with the same elderly man driving, drifted into my lane. This wouldn’t have been a problem had it not been the exact spot my vehicle was occupying. Again! I slammed on the brakes to avoid a collision. Reaccelerating and dodging to the right, I raced angrily ahead of him to offer that timeless salute so well known to thin-skinned rush-hour drivers everywhere. I extended my hand outside the window for a long time to make sure he grasped the full scope of my wrath, my driving hand remaining insistently on the horn. He offered a meek hand wave of apology. It didn’t make me feel any better. I’m sure he didn’t feel too good either.

I could make any excuse I wanted. It was the day before I was to get married. (Really, it was.) I was badly short of sleep and was now en route sixty miles east to pick up my best man, who couldn’t drive due to a terrible accident he’d suffered. Then I would drive him two hours south to my wedding rehearsal. I was tired and cranky, and not relishing the total of three hours sleep I might get that afternoon before waking for the rehearsal.

But this simple fact remains: my unspoken but clearly understood communication to that nameless driver more than three decades ago was inexcusable. It did nothing to make the situation better, and in fact made matters worse. I can never apologize to him; I can never undo my actions. In this all too angry world, I had made a strident choice not to show a little grace. My behavior that day made our world a little harsher, a bit colder, a little less forgiving. Nothing was gained. Nobody won. Everybody lost.

I was a part of the problem.

The rest of the day didn’t get much better. Because I had to get my own best man to the rehearsal, I got only two hours of sleep. We were late for the rehearsal. My future mum-in-law was visibly angry with me, which only made matters worse. I was angry with her. For the sake of peace in the family, I bit my tongue. I didn’t share why I was late. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone.

Many of us vacillate between communicating too quickly and vociferously to not saying anything at all. We maintain a poker face and put up a wall of formidable silence that dares anyone to guess how we feel and why. Both extremes are unhealthy. And I’m oh-so-prone to both of them.

The winter following that wedding rehearsal-day incident, I was driving to school on a snowy day. (Yes, I got married before I graduated. In my case, it was a wise move.) As I aimed my old beater gingerly down the interstate, another vehicle began to pull right into the spot I was occupying. Of necessity I honked the horn. The intruding car lurched back to the left. Recalling last summer’s incident prior to my wedding, I kept my thoughts under control and my gestures to myself. I took a deep breath.

I prayed. It was simply a brief breath of gratitude to God for protecting me both from the other vehicle in bad weather conditions—and from my own too-quick temper. But it was a real prayer.

In another mile I eased down the off-ramp and stopped at the next intersection. I heard a knock on my window. It was the driver of the car that had nearly hit me. He wanted to offer a profuse apology. “I never drive like that,” he said. “I’m so sorry I didn’t see you there.”

I thanked him. The light turned green. I headed toward campus, mindful of the stark contrast between my heated reactions last summer and my irenic response this winter—and his too. This time, I felt better. Much better. I’m sure the other driver did too.

What if we were quick to apologize every time we were in the wrong? What if we slow to make rude gestures or responses to people we might not even know? What if we quickly apologized when we did lose our temper?

What would the world be like if we took the ancient wise man’s advice to be slow to anger—and quick to forgive?


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