“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (Dalai Lama)
Many years ago I was driving home in heavy afternoon commute traffic. As I approached my exit and switched on my turn signal to change lanes, the car next to me in the lane I wanted to move into sped up, preventing me from moving into the exit lane. I slowed down to let him get ahead and he slowed down. I slowed down some more and he slowed down some more. I looked over at him and he was looking over at me—and laughing. I sped up, and—you guessed it—he sped up. This went on for a bit longer. He continued to laugh as he continued to block my ability to change lanes. As I passed my exit, he waved, and for the first and only time in my life, I made a rude—but expressive—hand gesture.
I fumed as I drove to the next exit and made my way back to the highway to return in the other direction. What a jerk! Why’d he pick me? Where’s a cop when you need one? I also thought about the hand gesture I had made. I assumed it would make me feel better, but it didn’t. By saluting him as I had, I sank nearly to his level. He got the reaction he wanted, and I acted in a way I considered crude.
I’m not going to say he wasn’t a jerk. He was a colossal jerk. I imagine this was a trick he’d performed before, probably only with women driving alone … certainly not burly guys driving 4X4 trucks with gun racks. What kind of a person does that, and, for heaven’s sake, why? But just because he was a jerk, there’s no reason why I needed to be one. If, indeed, making a lewd gesture had made me feel better, then okay, go for it—no harm, no foul—but the act diminished me. It did, however, teach me something important: even under great provocation, that’s not who I want to be.
I’ve often wondered if I had the experience to do over—and I’d rather not, thank you, to any Seattle drivers who may be reading this and know what color Subaru I drive—what would I like my response to have been?
Perhaps if I had smiled and waved he might have had a momentary panic that he was perpetrating this nasty trick on an acquaintance, a friend, or—worse yet—one of his mother’s friends. That might have given him just enough of a pause that he would have stopped being a jerk long enough for me to change lanes. Maybe if I’d blown him a kiss….
Kindness is always a choice, as is unkindness. Every time we choose how we will respond in an emotion-charged situation, we choose what sort of a person we are going to be. And the more times we choose, the more we reinforce who we are. Eventually, maybe, we get to a point where we no longer need to choose—we know who we are and who we have become—and we act out of that now-innate knowledge. If I ever get to that point, I hope I will have chosen kindness at every opportunity. That, I think, is a life well-lived.
“A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” (Charles H. Spurgeon)