How Are You?
A friend asked why I didn't get upset about people doing thoughtless or bad things.  Well, of course, I DO get upset about that stuff, especially when someone impinges on some principle or other that I happen to feel strongly about.

But something happened to me when I was 33 that gave me a different way to think about slights and injuries.  The effect was to make things seem more complicated, rather than less, but also different.

One day Carol and I were driving from her hometown just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to see The Tempest at the University of Michigan.  We were a little late starting, and I was mad at her, out of sorts generally, and was driving fairly fast along the two lane road.

A couple of miles outside of town, a car appeared in the mirror, a big fat Oldsmobile, coming up behind us fast. It whipped around and passed us, then cut in right in front of us--cut in so close that I had to hit the brakes hard and steer onto the narrow shoulder to keep from being knocked right into the ditch.  I blew up and swore at the driver for quite a while, as the Oldsmobile disappeared around a bend, going much faster than the 65 mph limit that I was already exceeding.

I was particularly good at swearing at thoughtless drivers.  I'd been practicing for a long time.  I'd gotten very good at it in the daily traffic jams of Lagos, Nigeria, while driving six miles to work across the only bridge there was then to Lagos island.  Drivers were always jockeying for advantage, jumping from one lane to another and sometimes blasting down the dirt shoulder, kicking up huge clouds of dust and scattering pedestrians all over the place.  We had a tiny Fiat 500 with a sunroof, and when some harried commuter or careless lorry driver cut us off  I'd shake my fist at him through the sunroof.   In really egregious cases I'd straighten out so that my head and shoulders would stick up above the roof of the little car and shake my fist or give him what the British expatriates called "the three finger salute--read between the lines!"

I wasn't the best at this, however.  That was Gerry Brookes, a Welsh geographer who got positively livid on those occasions.  He had several favorite gestures, of which the "three finger salute--read between the lines!" was the least offensive.  But what Gerry had found was most effective of all was to shout out, "You're a silly man!"  Being called a silly man seemed to irritate Nigerian drivers even more than the gesture, and sometimes they'd turn positively purple with rage.  No more purple than Gerry did, though, and the purple was a lot more discernable on his face than theirs.  I tried it once on Carter Bridge when a big lorry's front tire rubbed against our fender and bounced us completely off the roadway and onto the sidewalk.  The lorry driver probably didn't hear me, just as he probably didn't even know he'd hit us.  And calling him a silly man didn't make me feel much less rattled, either.

So we drove a couple miles farther along the Ann Arbor road and then came upon the big fat Oldsmobile, pulled over to the side and stopped.  As we blew by I saluted the driver and kept on, hoping to get to the theater before curtain time.

About two minutes later, there was that damned Oldsmobile in the mirror again, coming up fast, just as before.  And as before, it cut us off and it was all I could do to keep us out of the ditch.  I told the driver what was on my mind--and loudly enough so there was some hope of his hearing.

Another mile and there he was again, stopped on the side of the road.  This time I'd had quite enough, so I stood on the brakes and screeched to a stop beside him, not two feet of empty air between the cars.

"Roll down your window!' I shouted to Carol.

She must have known how serious I was because although she almost never does what I tell her, she rolled down her window.

The other driver, a thin man probably in his mid-thirties, looked over at me.  I leaned across Carol toward him, my face burning with Gerry Brookes' purple rage.

And then just as I opened my mouth to speak--if "speak" is the correct word for it here--something very peculiar happened.

The other driver looked at me and sort of flinched.  He seemed to know what was coming his way and was fortifying himself.  But there was something else in his expression--I don't know what it was, but it wasn't only the expression of a guy who knows he has made someone else mad and is going to get reamed out for it.  There was something else there--something more--or less.

"Are you all right?"

It just came out of my mouth from--somewhere, certainly not from me.   From me was coming something more like what Gerry Brookes  would have said--not "You're a silly man," but something that would seem very strong to an American.

"Are you all right?"  The words seemed to come from nowhere and they seemed to hang there in the space between the cars.  I don't know who of us was the most surprised.  Carol, who had heard plenty of invectives coming from me in similar situations, seemed stunned and made no sound at all.

The other driver, looking very quiet and frightened-relieved (is there a word for it?), nodded once slightly.

And I was completely astounded.  I didn't--and still don't--know where those words came from.  Certainly not from me!  From my mouth, yes, but not my words, not my thought.

After a few seconds of silence--of quiet--I put the car in gear and drove away.  Neither of us spoke all the way to the theater.  We arrived just in time to find our seats before the house lights dimmed and the players came out on stage.

I still can't explain what happened that evening.  Those words just came out of nowhere.  And that they were a question about the other driver's welfare and not a curse--that just knocks me out every time I think of it.  And I've thought about it almost every day since then.

And has it changed my life?  Not in any grand way, no.  I'm still just as petty and irritable as ever.  But now I do try to think twice before assuming that someone was out to do me injury when I get cut off on the road or slighted in some professional or social situation.  And I try to remember that almost everyone almost always tries to do the right thing and not to hurt others, and that most slights and insults are more likely to be perceived than intended.

I don't think you can do much better than to ask: "Are you all right?" 

- Don Maxwell -

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