Spiritual Lessons from I-95

The first month of summer 2010, I drank deeply from that great American experience of highway driving – some 3,000 miles of Eastern seaboard interstates in three weeks. The Eisenhower Interstate system is a wonderful thing, but it does not change human nature. I gleaned some serious spiritual lessons while observing other drivers – and myself!

Perhaps you share my experience. As five, ten, or even twenty cars line up patiently in the left lane to pass a slower truck, those few antinomian drivers among us speed by in the right lane intent on cutting in farther down the line. Most don’t signal at all – they just muscle over to the left, cutting in line. Others signal, not out of courtesy, but as a warning. They don’t ask permission – they are coming over, so look out! In fact, their act of signaling is rather odd. They have already broken traffic rules and social protocol – why use a signal now?

If you think about it, this sort of rude behavior saves these drivers what? A good five or ten seconds on their journey, . . . maybe. So it’s obviously not about the time saving. Rather, their passing on the right and cutting in farther down is an expression of human nature and some deeply held convictions about life.

Technology is good – don’t get me wrong, I am not a Luddite calling for a return to the days of horse and buggy. But technology too often also results in the alienation of one human from another. Though we travel at break-neck speed mere feet or even inches from other human beings, we treat them in manners we never would if we were face-to-face. But encased in our 2,000 pound metal, glass, and plastic bubbles, we can be as rude as we please. We wouldn’t think of acting this way in a line at the bank or in the grocery store (well, . . . maybe some people think of it, but the closeness of human contact prevents us from such actions in these venues).

It seems that rules don’t apply on the highway for some people – it is every driver for himself. The one rule that seems ubiquitous: don’t make eye contact with the person you cut off. Gone are the days of accepted courtesy – a blink of the lights, a nod of the head, or wave of the hand to say to the other driver, “Come on over.”

The more people passed me on the right, the more I began to realize this pattern revealed a microcosm of human philosophies. The oversized pick-up truck driver is obviously the Darwinian Naturalist. He is bigger and drives by the evolutionary rule of the survival of the fittest. You have to let him in . . . unless you are bigger still. Then there is that sporty Z-car driven by the Existentialist. “I am fast, therefore I pass anywhere and anyone I want.” This driver validates his existence through the experience of his Z-car. No one else matters in the moment. Even more troubling is the Nihilistic driver of some piece of moving junk. Neither stronger and bigger, nor faster and snazzier, this guy believes there is no meaning in life whatsoever, so why not pass on the right and barge in. It simply doesn’t matter – if he dies, he dies. So what? All of these driving habits also display the post-modern penchant for self-fulfillment. There is no bigger idea of culture or rule. There is only Me and Now.

Then, finally, there are those of us who remain moralists or theists. We still hold to the existence of objective truth, to some sense of absolute right and wrong. We believe there is order in world and thus we wait in line to pass on the left. It is a good thing to do; in fact, the right thing to do. Passing on the left remains a cheap and rude transgression of the moral order of things.

So we see deeply held convictions displayed in the simple act of driving on the highway.

As I contemplated these thoughts behind the wheel, I muttered to my teenage and young adult children, “The right lane is the wrong lane for passing – these people have no concept of right or wrong.” But then again, I had to admit that for such people, “right” and “wrong” are relative terms and more often than not, their personal experience determines right and wrong.

But hope springs eternal. I believe still that there is a place for civility – even on the highways. But in our automotive bubbles, we too often allow our humanity to devolve into displays of power and selfishness. So lest we surrender to the faceless technological wielding of power and end in chaos, I will continue to wait patiently to pass on the left, to allow the “other guy” time to come over, to blink the lights, nod the head, and even perhaps make personal contact with those other human beings. It’s a small thing, admittedly. But it’s the right thing to do.