What would Jesus do? has become kind of a catch phrase, but I think many of us have someone, or an idea of someone, who we use to help guide our behavior. It could be a Buddhist monk or a friend you admire for his or her patience, but we admire what we see, their behavior, and we try to emulate it. When faced with a contentious situation, we allow our emotions to roil angrily and then we condemn ourselves for how we react. Jesus wouldn’t have done that. Well, Jesus wouldn’t have gotten that pissed off to begin with.
We put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves by judging our reactions to how we feel, while bypassing the control we have over how we feel. People who read my book, Flowers on Concrete, probably guess I’m like Trey, who narrates the novel. Okay, I don’t write in a vacuum. Trey is an extreme version of a part of me. Readers, who know me, would probably be more surprised to know how much I’m like Sean, the antagonist of the novel. Sean looks for reasons to get angry. Sometimes that turns out funny, in the novel, other times it causes problems. Sean slips into rages over the way other people behave, which often seems absurd, but really his reactions are perfectly appropriate when you think of how crazy angry he’s gotten. Sean’s problem isn’t how he behaves, it’s how he thinks.
The best analogy for our modern world is road rage. If you want to experience the best humans have to offer, take a vacation on a train. If you want to experience miserable human interaction, get in your car and go somewhere. Nowhere else do the most typical people display such anger toward each other. Not once has anyone ever gotten stuck behind me walking through a grocery store and started purposely stepping on my heels and when I stare back at them shrug and keep doing it. Yet every morning, someone rides my bumper down route 14 on my way to work.
I have a police officer friend, and even he makes fun of me for driving exactly the speed limit. I don’t play that go ahead and drive five over game. If the actual speed limit is five over, why not make the speed limit five more than it is? I like rules. I like living in a society that has rules and you accept them and if you don’t like them you take steps to change them. You don’t just flout them; that’s cowardice. (See how angry I’m getting?)
I had an old running joke with a friend where, when people cut me off in traffic, I would raise my hand in the air and say, “I’ll allow it.” She would laugh. Of course, I wasn’t allowing anything; I’d already been cut off, but while not in control of how people treated me on the road, I was exercising control over how I let it affect me. In those instances, I was far too happy to be touched. When I was in a car with that person, I wasn’t worried about being anywhere else, I was at a state of peace (but that’s a sad story I’ll only tell if my second novel gets published). The problem is we aren’t always happy. We’re stressed or we’re tired. We find ourselves in states of mind where we easily could get angry and then almost search for reasons to get angry. Our thinking creates a desire to release our fury, and then we fight to curb that natural impulse. Which most of us are largely successful at doing, but it’s an internal struggle that causes a lot of personal misery.
When I lived in Kent, I had someone riding my bumper down 43 (the names of these roads change but the way people drive on them never will) and I kept at the speed limit until the road became two lanes and then I moved to the right and he whipped around me. Stopped at a traffic light, the guy who’d been in the car behind him was motioning me to roll down my window, and I did. This guy was boiling mad. He stuck his head halfway out his window and said, “How’d you like that kid tailgating you all that way?” He looked at me for a second and then found that kid (stopped at the same traffic light, by the way) and stared hatefully at the back of his car. This guy was enraged over how a stranger was tailgating me. He couldn’t have been less involved unless he had been sitting at home and imagining somewhere someone in the world was being tailgated and spent an afternoon stewing over it. I just smiled and shrugged, Zen-like. That happened to be my last drive home from work before a week and a half vacation to Florida, where I’d be hanging at the beach with my mom, my dad, my sisters and all their kids. I was too happy to be touched.
Of course, there’s only one day a year where I’m driving home from work about to start a long vacation, but I use that guy to remind me how futile it is to get so angry, not just on the road, but in any situation. Rage has a complex root. I don’t know exactly what the formula is, perfectly appropriate reaction to circumstances is certainly in there but so are insecurity and self pity, but we get to choose how we think. Once rage takes over, even if you act like Jesus, it’s too late, someone’s already been hurt: you. So back up from there, what would Jesus think? I’m often not successful at getting to my thinking in time, it takes practice, but when I do, it feels good. If nothing else it gives us two gates between rage and who we wish to be.