Saturday, May 17, 2008

Knowing When

Could the secret of our survival be something so simple?

Something amazing happened right before my eyes recently. It started normally enough, while I was driving home from work. There's a complicated intersection I have to go through to get onto US-1. Just before I got there my lane was blocked by a man in a large SUV who insisted on parking across it so he could push his way into the left-turn lane, which was totally packed. Frustrated, all I could do was stop and watch my opportunity to make the green light slip away.

I was not alone in my frustration. Another driver in the left-turn lane felt so strongly about the lack of consideration that he opened his door, got out, and began a shouting match with the SUV guy over the roof of his car. SUV guy in turn got out of his car so he could make his own points. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was pretty clear from their gestures that SUV guy insisted on his right to a left turn, no matter how inconvenient, while the other driver was not about to let him cut in line.

Perfect, I thought. Now it would take even longer for this guy to get out of the way. And besides that I would probably have to witness a violent crime, wait for the police and TV news crews to take down my report, and lose days of work while testifying in a criminal case. Getting home late would be the least of my worries.

That's when the incredible thing happened. Both drivers had got back into their cars, presumably still fuming. Then suddenly, with no warning or explanation, the SUV guy simply ... backed up. Yes, backed up and started waving people through the intersection, myself included.

What a wonderful and unexpected outcome! I felt as if the sun had just come out. Everything was light and breezy again as I smiled and waved my way along. Now, instead of feeling resentment at the anonymous driver, I felt gratitude and admiration. He had accomplished all this by just letting go of his position and doing the right thing for all concerned, including himself.

An interesting lesson. I found myself thinking about another time this happened, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Kennedy and Khrushchev were going head to head over Cuba with World War III a hair trigger away. But when it came down to it, they both found it was better to give up what they wanted, or at least some of it, and work a compromise. Two generations later, we still owe our survival to their joint act of standing down.

Would that more of us, including our current President, could find it in us to make that small sacrifice of self that produces the greater good. If we want to continue surviving, we will have to learn to do that time and time again.

Maybe we can start in small ways, by knowing when it's time to back up.

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