Today I found myself behind a guy in a giant red pick-up truck driving down a country road in Georgia, where I’m currently living. He was driving under the speed limit and over the line, and I could see that he was reading something (a letter? a bill?) held in his left hand and was smoking a cigarette, with flair, that he held in his right. Apparently he was driving with his third hand. I was in a hurry and my automatic reaction (“habit energy,” as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh calls it) was to be annoyed. More precisely, I called this driver an “asshole” – though only in my head. The truth is, I didn’t dare even whisper such a word until he turned off the road and safely left my world forever. Why? Because I was afraid of him.
For reasons not entirely known to me, but related somehow to my formal and informal training, I view white men in pick-up trucks as essentially aggressive and violent. In my unconscious and conscious imaginations, men in trucks are always ready for a fight. Plus, tomorrow is Election Day and I have an Obama sticker on my hybrid bumper. This is the deep South, after all, where M.I.T. are all racists, and everyone and his nanny’s got a gun. I would be a fool to attract this animal’s attention, would I not?
Never mind that my Southern father-in-law has a giant black pick-up truck (which we sometimes borrow), and he is one of the least aggressive people I’ve ever met. But my aversion to M.I.T. isn’t entirely rational. It is primal, wrapped up in images from Dead Man Walking and even Deliverance, which I’ve never actually seen because I’m too terrified of movies about violent white Southern men. In addition, tensions are extra high this week due to the elections, not just on the country roads, but also on Facebook, which colors my psyche whether I want it to or not. And I’ve already had some man behind me at a stop light, in a pick-up truck of course, gesture and mouth anti-Obama slogans to me via my rear-view mirror.
Just for this moment, I’m taking a breath and imagining that the driver of the giant red pick-up truck was not a rapist/murderer in waiting. I’m imagining that the letter he was reading was a medical bill that his insurance company won’t pay, and he was frustrated; or that he’s desperately tried to quit smoking half a dozen times but simply loves his cigarettes too much (as I love my chocolate and beer). I’m imagining, in other words, that he is a human being, just like me – made in God’s image, as the Judeo-Christians say, or an as-yet-undiscovered buddha who wants simply to be free from suffering, as the Buddhists say.
May you be happy and well, fellow traveler. May you be free from suffering. And may I learn to be less of an asshole, day by day.