The Humanity of Strangers


I will sometimes get irrationally annoyed while I am driving. I will be following the speed limit, and someone at the stoplight ahead will make a right on red, turning in front of me. And if I have to use my brakes, I get annoyed, and if the person who cut ahead of me is driving below the speed limit, I get angry. This person could have waited five seconds for me to pass, and then turned onto the road. They are now slowing me down. When this same person does not maintain the same lane as he is turning at the next light, I will be driving right on their back bumper, ready to hold down my horn.

God forbid this person has an Obama bumper sticker.

But then at the next light I change lanes and am pulling up beside this other driver, this object of my spite. I get a look at him, though we do not make eye-contact, and I can see in his face that he is worried. I feel remorse. I feel bad for antagonizing this person by tailgating him for 1.4 miles, even if he never noticed. I begin to make excuses for him, sure that is he dealing with the death of a relation, bad news from a wife who is packing herself a suitcase, or just on the phone with a boss who is no longer going to give him a paycheck. I can even understand how someone can become, through no fault of their own, deluded enough to support a politician.

Similar grievances happen at the grocery store. I am getting angry at the woman in line in front of me, because she has exactly four items, and she is going through a binder of coupons. I am in a hurry. My child keeps grabbing candy off the rack beside us, and I have nowhere to move. There is no reason for this to take so long, she is buying four boxes of generic pancake mix that are already on sale, why does this creature need a binder of coupons?

But the woman looks up at me and apologizes, was absolutely sure she had the coupons out already, gosh what a hectic day she’s been having, she is sure she has a five dollar bill in here somewhere, really sorry this is taking so long. I feel bad. I imagine this woman is taking care of her grandchildren because her daughter is addicted to FDA-prescribed heroin. She probably has little money, and is a professional coupon-er, one of those people who will sometimes leave with full grocery carts for $5. I respect this woman.

And I try to remember these things the next time I’m on the highway and someone is driving slowly in the express lane, while talking on their cellphone. I try to remind myself that I have little ability to imagine the driver as a person. I have not met that person, this driver who is slowing me down, he or she is nothing but a concept to me, a undefined placeholder for the human being who is driving this vehicle, slowly, in front of me.

I try to remind myself how little I view other people as actual human beings, especially those I cannot see or cannot speak to, cannot interact with – these people are placeholders, vague molds with no filling; bodies, without humanity. I know absolutely nothing about them, and my mind finds it difficult to fill these empty molds with identities, issues, emotions, circumstances, histories. Because my mind is focused on the here-and-now, or on my job, or my family, or what I should do with my hair before my brother’s wedding because I look homeless. I am unable to fill the thousands of molds of the individuals who cross the street without looking, slow down traffic, hold up the grocery line, take forever to return my desired book to the library… every day, a thousand reasons to be angry at and spiteful of a thousand different people – who would actually trust Donald Trump’s mouth? Why do these assholes spend $100,000 on these fucking Porsche minivans?

But I cannot imagine them. And if I met these people, I know I would begin to make one thousand excuses for them, and I would imagine their parents neglecting them, their classmates teasing them, their health insurance charging exorbitant fees and the pressures they feel from a society hell-bent on glitz and ownership of the glitz.

And I do not think this goes without saying, that imagination is the pre-requisite of empathy; that it takes cognitive effort, work, to imagine the life of a person I have no contact with. That, until I have met a person, until they have spoken to me and shown me the color of their eyes – until I am forced to see them beyond their immediate effect on my own person, I do not see them at all: they are only the effects they have upon me, superficially. I do not think this goes without saying, that our immediate, default perceptions do not perceive other people as human beings.


I Won’t Let People Up My Ass

I drive a box-truck for work. 50 hours a week, driving in Columbus, Ohio, and what unnerves me most is every person who tailgates.

(My wife has a bumper sticker, At Least Buy Me Dinner Before You Ride My Ass. Succinct.)

Drive down Route 270, or 71, or 315, or even Broad Street, and you’re going to pass four cars pulled over in a line – because these idiots were tailgating one another.

Drive down the highway in the middle of the day, on a Sunday, and the highway will be empty and quiet except for five cars in a tight little line, maybe a dozen feet between them.

It is completely and pointlessly dangerous to drive so close to another car. Pass the car in front of you, or change lanes, or slow down for thirty seconds to give yourself some room. What idiot wants to be so far up another’s ass?

(See, I’m Not A Liberal, bumperstickers, or the, Obamacare Works For Me, bumperstickers.)

When people tailgate me, I get annoyed. When people tailgate me at work, when I’m driving the box-truck, I get pissed-off…

I was driving a straight two-lane that intersects a main road. There was a stop sign at the end. Behind me was a jackass who was tailgating so severely that I could not see his car. My sideview mirrors do a good job, but directly behind the truck is a large blind-spot. I knew the car was there, and I knew how close he had to be if I wasn’t able to see him.

I was pissed. I sped the truck down the road, jammed down the gas-pedal right up to the stop sign and then stomped on the brake. The tires locked and then skidded. I didn’t want the idiot behind me to hit my truck, but I wanted to give him a heart-thump and an obvious lesson.

Two minutes later I’m driving down the next road. My work phone rings and it’s my boss, and the first I think of is that the Tailgating Asshole took the number from the back of the truck to call and complain about my driving.

My boss tells me someone called in to say my truck has a brake-light that isn’t working.

And that’s why that man was tailgating my truck, wasn’t it? He wasn’t being an idiot-dipshit, he was trying to read the number on the back of the truck. Indignation over nothing. And I can’t help but see my own lesson here: not to assume or jump to conclusions.

I will always give people the Benefit Of the Doubt: I don’t know why you cut me off in traffic, maybe your wife’s going into labor or you’re late for an important interview; I don’t know why that person stuck their gum on the top of the bench where I sit, but maybe it was only a kid who doesn’t know better; I don’t know why my co-worker went to work with the flu, and then coughed into the refrigerator while looking for her lunch, but maybe she’s on the autistic spectrum.

I get a lot of indignation about the way other people poorly affect my life, and these feelings of personal affrontation can lead to frustration and anger. But it isn’t worth it, because I don’t know what the other person’s situation is, I have no clue what they’re doing. If the first conclusion I jump to is that the other person is intentionally slighting me, than what does that say about my perception of humanity?

If I think all people understand my emotions when they rouse my indignation, then that requires the other person’s intent: all people intend to offend me. That is a cruel world, a miserable humanity.

No. From now on I keep in mind the man who called in my broken brakelight, and I refuse my impulsive conclusions. I do not know the motivations of others, and I keep in my mind their motivations are honest, 87% of the time.