Road Rage with Marcus Aurelius

canstockphoto20499175She 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.

canstockphoto2020697While 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.

canstockphoto1604923Our 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.

canstockphoto18256337My 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

Choose the seed. Choose the habit. Choose the kind of world I perpetuate. I have some work to do.canstockphoto4439665

47 Comments on “Road Rage with Marcus Aurelius

  1. This hits me right in the psyche. I’ve been thinking a lot about ego, and how it drives us, often to aggression. This is a fine meditation you’ve got here. Have you read David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech? I may have mentioned it before. On the importance of empathy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ego is a tricky thing. There are a lot of Buddhist writings on ego and how it gets in our way and keeps us, as DFW talks about, from being present. The older I get the more important it seems to me that I not give up my moments to egoistic reaction, but it means facing down habits of a lifetime.

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  2. I do not entirely agree with Marcus. Pain is NOT only due to our estimation of it; well, sometimes, yes, we can over-blow what really is just a minor inconvenience, but it doesn’t take much thought to see that others can inflict REAL, UNAMBIGUOUS pain. Suppose this chick had flown through the parking lot, hit and paralyzed a kid, or killed someone? Hard to argue that’s all in the estimation of the sufferer.

    As to yelling at her – hey, some people need a dang wake-up call either because they are oblivious and need an education, or because they need to be called out on their bullshit. The right to swing my fist stops at the other fellow’s nose, says Oliver Wendell Holmes, and by first charging ahead of another customer by illegally speeding through a parking lot, then selfishly blocking other customers’ easy use of the ATM (and she KNEW you were there, duh, she rushed to get ahead of you, didn’t she??), she falls squarely in the category of swinging her fist any old place and everyone else better just get their noses out of her way.

    In the grand scheme of things, one can argue that a little delay at an ATM and having to take a little more care in squeezing out is really minor, but the annoyance comes not from the thing itself in this case, but HOW it came about: a rude, pushy, oblivious, dangerous driver out for herself and screw everyone else: a universally loathed archetype, and if asked, she herself might deny that that is what she is (“Oh, I didn’t see you; I’m not in your way.”) Hmmm, who’s passive-aggressive now?

    You were FAR more polite than I would have been.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s funny as I read these comments, because I really think I needed to say how it made me feel to lose my temper. Not good, not productive, not emotionally satisfying. So while it may seem I’m speaking to understanding and compassion, it’s a little less altruistic than that.

      I think the point about one’s estimate of external distress obviously has a limited application. None of these aphorisms could be applied universally, but in this case of my “suffering”, much was self-generated.

      Very few people learn the lesson they may need to learn from a drive-by shouting. And the fact that I’m sure I’ve had some oblivious moments and made mistakes, makes me a little less self-righteous. On top of that, how many times a day have I seen dangerous driving maneuvers? In a metro area, dozens of times. What hooked me about this incident? It wasn’t that this was worse than all the others. It was that I, personally, allowed myself to foster and foment anger.

      I’m not made of rainbows and unicorns, nor do I consider myself passive. I just see and hear so much anger on and offline, often misdirected and pointless, that I think it’s important to look at how my own behavior contributes to the noise.

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  3. Very wise post. So surprised to find it over here, Michelle. Hahaha, JUST KIDDING. Seriously, it’s a really good one. What good advice from the old man.

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    • I have my moments, Luanne. He hits and misses on the advice. I skip over all the parts where he is establishing paternal authority in his house, but I like his straightforward approach. And it’s amazing how writers and philosophers throughout time come up with similar aphorisms. The comparisons seem like one way to arrive at truth.

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  4. Ah Michelle, we all have work to do, except save a very few. You are way ahead of the crowd simply in the fact of your thoughtful awareness.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s no question I have work to do. It’s funny, though, just when I think I have a handle on things, something like this situation pops up and I am reminded that there are miles to go. Keeps the smugness and self-righteousness down to a low roar!

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      • Michelle, I’m so happy to have found you! Your write with clarity and resonance. 🙂 I have not explored your blog fully–are you a student of mindfulness? I’m trying! One of my favorite sayings in the practice is about ‘not judging the roam away, rather celebrating the return!’ When we try so hard to live a conscious life, we may judge ourselves very harshly when we find ourselves exhibiting the very behavior we try so hard to avoid! Like you, when it happens (as it always will, because we are human), I may question my own integrity and authenticity. That’s when I find it very helpful to remind myself, ‘celebrate the return!’ It’s called a ‘practice’ for a reason, after all. 🙂 There will always be another opportunity. Finding fellow conscious travelers along the journey makes it a lot more fun, too. Thank you! 🙂

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        • Thanks, Catherine for your kind words about the writing. I consider myself a student of anything that will keep me advancing forward as a human and mindfulness/being present is a skill at which I really have to work. It’s funny that all of one’s life is really a practice and if you have the good fortune of ever figuring things out, it’s at an end with no do-over. It’s a good argument for enjoying the practice journey as much as one can, so your celebration of the return makes a lot of sense.

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  5. I want to question your key premise, which is that aggression is always bad. Sometimes – such as when dealing with inexcusable rudeness from the confines of a hot car – pressure builds up. You have choices … You can explode out of control (ram her car – consequences be damned). You can bottle up your feelings and quite possibly cause some sort of internal rupture – not necessarily physical, but still real. You can bottle up your feelings and postpone the eruption until you have someone “safe” at whom to direct it – kick the cat, scream at your husband, whatever. OR … you can behave in a fully justified manner, expressing your displeasure to the Rude Person. Who may or may not pay any attention to you – but that’s not your problem, so long as you don’t pause to engage.

    I’m sometimes ditzy … I’ve been known to cut people off and be unaware that I’m blocking the way. A sharp reminder that I’m not the sole inhabitant of the planet snaps me to attention. It doesn’t feel good – but sometimes I need it. I’ve known other people to behave like idiots and when you call them on it they get aggressive – but you can (and should) choose not to engage.

    I think, for me, there are just a few key issues. Firstly, is your annoyance justified? In other words, is the other person behaving like a jerk? Secondly, did you manage to express your displeasure without starting a war or shedding blood? And thirdly, when you drive on, can you leave the incident behind you and move on with your day – knowing that there’s at least a fair chance that you’ll be nice to the next person you encounter? If you can say yes to all three, I think you’re doing okay.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This particular kind of aggression (not assertiveness, which is different) feels bad to me and as I mentioned to Lila above, this isn’t me wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. The other thing that I truly believe is that no matter what someone else does, I am entirely responsible for my behavior. I can’t control or change anyone else – that’s an effort of pure folly.

      I made a choice to be annoyed and to let it build until I exploded. I perpetuated a world I don’t want to live in – where we are hollering and screaming at each other about every displeasure until the ultimate outcome would be and has been very real violence.

      My choice now is to try and learn something from it, something useful and meaningful. And to put it into practice. That’s always the hard part!

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  6. It is an interesting case on rational vs. the emotional. I am glad you had the patience to give this woman some compassion. However, there can be times when compassion such as yours cannot – or should not – be extended.

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    • I’m not sure that compassion dictated my revisiting of the scenario. It was actually my rational mind – I do not know what was happening with the other woman, so it was illogical to react as if she were intentionally doing something to me. It may have been completely unintentional. She may simply be oblivious or maybe has something stressful happening in her life that made her not pay attention. Either way, my anger served no purpose. I felt worse for having yelled at her and I doubt she learned anything from the experience.

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  7. Very thoughtful post, Michelle, and a great meditation. And no to your last question. You differ by so much more. But I understand how you felt reflecting on what happened. I do react sometimes, and feel strange and uncomfortable afterwards…but such is life. We have to forgive ourselves.

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    • Self-forgiveness comes to me in lessons learned. I hope that I will decompress my anger in the future a little more quickly, but I have a feeling there will be more to forgive. I’m a slow learner!

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  8. You’re handling these comments like a champ. We live in a world where aggression is not just condoned but expected and even encouraged. An eye for an eye, the right to carry.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. We’re all trying to do too much, and finding stumbling blocks instead of fellow people. I’ve been questioning my own reactions and wondering how to change them

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    • I like this – the thought that our constant state of motion makes other humans seem like impediments rather than other people. It’s true. And it all comes down again to being present in the moment, instead of focused on our own endgames.

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  10. Thoughtful post, and on the mark. In a way, yes you were being a bit of a jerk, and deserve a little guilt and condemnation. I’ve been there, done that. Felt bad afterward too. I think the lack of restraint in our society is indeed a contributing factor in the violence we see. Obviously not the sole cause, maybe not even one of the main causes, but it is part of it for sure. Too many people swearing and discharging their anger both in public and on the internet. Anger usually begets anger, and the cycle continues.
    If all of us continue to make an effort to play nice, we can only improve this world, even if it’s just a small improvement.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Anger does beget anger. I try not to think of it as restraint, but more as learning how to defuse myself before it becomes full-blown anger. It can be a habit to have that irritating thought and then feed it until it becomes rage. There is a strange sense of entitlement we all have about our indignation these days – that somehow it deserves a stage, rather than introspection.
      It’s tough work, though, to face ourselves down.

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  11. I used to poke around the library at the BCA. I loved the forensic journals, even the ones I could not fully understand. Most of the reading was pretty dry but once in a while I would be blown away by an article.

    One such piece was in a forensic anthropology journal, it spoke of study the ancient graveyards of tribal societies to determine the causes of death. 30% of males died by violence.

    That says something about us, the Lord of the Flies is a one shipwreck, perhaps even one car crash away.

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    • I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of violence. There is something in me that resists the idea that it is a necessary evil of human nature, but I know that science and anthropology are not on my side. It made more sense when it was about defending one’s family or tribe or fighting for resources.
      So much of the violence now seems merely an extension of petty grievances allowed to fester into hate and anger. But I’m sure there are larger themes and issues at work than I’m able to see from my vantage point. That being said, my questions invariably end up scaled down so that I can figure out how not to contribute to the problem.

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  12. So, this morning, while seething behind a law-abiding citizen who refused to accept that turning on yellow is acceptable driving etiquette, wishing that her car would mysteriously die by the side of the road was choosing the wrong path?

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    • In the words of every therapist ever: How did that make you feel?

      I think about Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, talking about the itch that you can’t prevent yourself from scratching at, even though you know it will perpetuate your suffering. The emotional itch for me is to percolate, cuss a bit, really work up a head of steam over a situation out of my control – I feel like I can’t stop myself sometimes and that seems dangerously close to compulsion.

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  13. I SO get this. I’m sort of horrified when rage foams out of me. Especially since I spend so much time fostering compassion and trying to take people as they come. I can blame my bipolar disorder for having a short fuse sometimes, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable or, to me, unacceptable.

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    • I feel pretty ashamed when I work myself up into a lather, because I do want to be a better person and I know this is a weakness for me. My compassion seems to follow a second too late behind the rage.

      As I mentioned to Kirizar above, it seems that some rage is a compulsion, but I’ve been working with the idea of habits lately. Every time we do something, we reinforce a habit. I’m hoping that if I am conscientious enough, I can start turning the tide a bit, one scenario at a time.

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  14. Weeelllllll … I’ve gotta tell you, I wouldn’t have behaved any better than you did if that woman had done that to me. She is inconsiderate and rude, she is a bad driver. Parking lots are not the autobahn and she could have caused an accident or worse, hit someone. Dumb!!

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    • I’m hoping I might just behave a little better next time. But it is one of those times I wish I had ticket-writing abilities. She would have had to go back to that ATM to have enough to pay for the gillion dollar fine I would have liked to have given her!

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  15. There’s just something about being behind the wheel of a car that shortens my patience with my fellow human beings. (And I LOVE driving – except when there’s traffic, obviously.)

    I spend a good 60% of my time behind the wheel angrily narrating my thoughts as to other drivers’ perceived shortcomings (heavily mixed with unimaginative, derisive curses, of course). I spend the other 40% mentally apologizing for my exaggerated frustrations, breathing deeply, and trying to send positive wishes towards all the people I’ve just mentally berated.

    Except YOU, you Lexus SUV driver. Learn how to @#%$ing share the road.

    (As a sidenote, I literally said aloud alone on my drive home this afternoon: “I’m sorry, that previous remark was out of frustration at your lack of attention just now and in no way a judgment of your character or worth as a person.” I’m trying!!)

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    • I feel like a different person when I drive – defensive and aggressive all at once. I love driving, too, except on my usual errands (the “to do” list) and then I have the patience of a Nascar driver. We’re all works in progress, I guess.

      I was driving back from the grocery store yesterday and a man angrily honked at me because he wanted to shift lanes, hadn’t paid attention and almost sideswiped me. I tried to be all zen and assume his honking anger was out of fear, but it struck me as odd that he would honk when he was in error. No lesson learned there except that people are weird.

      I remember one of the meditation exercises I’ve done in the past was to imagine sending good wishes to people, even in the middle of confrontation. It was an interesting concept, much like your experience of apologizing. I think those are thoughts that change the world, even if it’s just a shift in your own perspective.

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