The pathology of tailgaiting

Driving to work today. Busy rush hour traffic. A little rain. A truck behind me tailgated me to most of a mile, in a narrow street with no opportunity for either me pull over or him to overtake. When the opportunity came, instead of waiting (he had waited long enough, darn it!) for me to move to the right lane, he overtakes me on the inside, speeds up and makes sure he cuts me – in a demonstration of his displeasure wit my driving. Now, we are talking about mostly bumper to bumper traffic. So all this venting allows him to do is to be one car length ahead of me. Victory!

My initial emotional response is that this feels like an insult or a slap. The jerk! But almost equally quickly, perhaps one car length behind that feeling, comes the feeling of pity. Pity for the driver who is incapable of a more skillful response. This driver displayed the emotional depth of my 5 year old, the shallowness of someone that would rather answer with their fists when challenged.

Made me think of my own unskillful responses to just about anything which I perceive as a threat. Well, actually, even anything which I perceive as including me without my consent. And it is a perception – in other words it does not even need to be an actual action which affects me. I simply need to think it is, and I respond unskillfully.

The skill here comes from my understanding that there is a right time for everything. Most of my usual responses were, at some point, appropriate, or at least understandable, when they original happened. But after a while they solidified into the response.

Some people feel angry, some feel sulky, some feel guilty. And so on. I am perfectly capable of feeling all these things. The question is when is it appropriate to feel this way? Am I responding appropriately and with kindness to whatever is unfolding right now?

Now, there are many types of skillfully negative responses which I seem to be able to concoct, and spend quite some time justifying. This morning there was a real temptation to accelerate when he tried to overtake (thus blocking his move), to flash a finger, to honk my horn, to apply some retaliatory tailgating. Oh so many options. Funny thing is that while they certainly require some creativity, none of them would be a response which showed either kindness or led to an increase in kindness. Because the truth is that this is a man who is suffering. Suffering stress, suffering anger. I can be skillful and come up with a variety of creative reasons to diffuse my negative feelings: Perhaps he was rushing to a hospital? Perhaps he was going to lose his job (in this economy!) if he was late?

Without a doubt, even without these modifiers, if I was in his shoes it is quite likely that I too would feel justified in my anger – I hope not, but probably would.

So the skillful response turns out to be the one which requires least (mechanical) skill: back off and let him go.

The trick, of course, is to do this and simultaneously feel like it is the best and most desirable action. To truly feel some sort of deep satisfaction and enjoyment out of letting the dangerous and aggressive driver go by with his anger and insults.

Funny how for me the skill more often than not is in not responding, in preventing my response, whether it is the instinctual one (almost always a bad choice) or even the reasoned one. Just do not respond. Let things unfold. Breathe. Hold on to peacefulness and lovingkindness.

Ah – the yoga of driving. Hard hard work.

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About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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