Road Rage with Marcus Aurelius
She came through the parking lot at high speed, cutting me off and pulling in front of me at the drive-up ATM. The only lessons I have faithfully adhered to through all my driving years is that you go slowly in parking lots and assume everyone else is a bad driver. She was the not-so-hypothetical reason for both rules.
Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book II, 1, trans. Staniforth
The sun baked me at 90° F, magnified to 140°F through the front windshield. Even with the air conditioning on, I felt like breathing was an effort. My stomach growled, as it was getting closer to lunchtime. I watched as she conducted transactions with not one, but three debit cards. I was beginning to sweat. The air conditioning wasn’t able to fend off the burning rays. I shut it off and opened all the windows.
She pulled away from the machine, but stopped 15 feet up from the ATM. She was on her cell phone. I finished my transaction and realized that I would have to squeeze through at an angle to leave. Hot, hungry, frustrated, I navigated around her car and then yelled “You could have parked your ass in a better place!” And pulled out of the parking lot.
While I am often a mutterer, grumbler and cusser in the car, I am not a yell-out-of-the-open-window kind of person. What people call “Minnesota Nice” here, is really Minnesota Passive Aggression. Anger is kept under wraps unless you’re a yahoo with no class. Which, apparently, is now me.
I felt immediately ashamed of my out-of-control raging. This is not the person I want to be. I often joke that I become someone entirely different when behind the wheel. It didn’t seem that funny now. I’ve been in checkout lanes with angry people, I’ve heard the muttering and cussing and surly undertones used in post offices and restaurants. I’d think give it a rest, it’s just blah, blah, blah. And wow, they need some anger management lessons. Yes, Hypocrites R Me.
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book VIII, 47, trans. Staniforth
When I tell stories like this, people always say “you’re being too hard on yourself”. I assume that they’re being magnanimous because they’ve done things equally awful or worse. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, this is a minor incident, but I’ve been thinking about the roots of violence and aggression a lot lately.
Our knee-jerk response is to beat our drums about mental illness and guns and racism and misogyny. When stories like the latest shootings at a theater in Louisiana and the military base in Tennessee hit the media, the response is predictable and ultimately, empty. Throw out something about the 2nd amendment, about the mental health crisis in our country, maybe the word terrorist. Next.
For a long time, I wondered if violence is endemic to human nature, despairing that the problem was too complex to ever find a single concrete solution. Because that is what we really want. We want there to be a magic reason for violence that would only require a quest, some passion, a petition, and maybe a few hashtags to solve the problem.
Sometimes I think about the steps between thought and action. Every premeditated act of violence begins with a single thought.
What is that thought? Was it a niggling sense of entitlement or anger at injustice? Was it a minor incident that snowballed in the person’s mind? And when did it progress – online in an open forum? At work with acts of petty vandalism? Did this person find people along the way who agreed with the lesser points, supported the jokes about killing ’em all? Laughed about blood and guts in some sort of adolescent gaming exchange?
Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book IV, 7, trans. Staniforth
Or was it the media and entertainment, where killing and crime scenes hook our morbid fascination? Was it the collapse of a relationship? Or financial distress? Was it that the only kind of attention people seem to get is not the kind they really need? The murderers who get dissected by armchair psychologists and talking heads, a punditry that melds both ignorance and verbal abilities?
It’s too much to parse. We continue warily into the world. But I can’t shake the idea that violence and aggression have roots, even if just a tenuous thread between thought and action. Or in my case, words and action. I was aggressive and angry towards a stranger. I did not know her story. I did not know her burdens or her joys. Maybe my action was a last straw for her. Maybe my aggression only fed hers. Maybe it will be something bigger than I can imagine.
My evening walks don’t always entail philosophical meanderings. Sometimes I just spend the whole walk thinking “Ow, my knee hurts. What just popped? Do I look as hot and sweaty as I feel?” Last night, though, I thought about my own seeds of violence and aggression. How easily I fertilized those thoughts at the ATM. It took only a few uncomfortable circumstances, heat and hunger and impatience, before I acted upon them. Do I only differ from a murderer by where I am on the continuum of aggression and violence?
Try to see, before it is too late, that you have within you something higher and more godlike than mere instincts which move your emotions and twitch you like a puppet. Which of these is it, then, that is clouding my understanding of this moment? Fear, jealousy, lust, or some other?
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book XII, 19, trans. Staniforth
Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thoughts as, for example: Where life is possible at all, a right life is possible.
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Book V, 16, trans. Staniforth