When you combine the teaching of a 4th century monk with the experiences of a 21st century commuter, you can create a spiritual discipline that not only draws you closer to God, but also helps you to deal with irritation.
There is something about a 6-lane highway that brings out the worst in people. There is the “stock-car driver” who sees the commute as a race, frequently changing lanes so that he can be two cars ahead of you. There is the entitled driver who, when 20 cars are backed up waiting to exit the freeway, zooms to the front of the line and forces his way in. There is the “every-man-for-himself-and-the-devil-take-the-hindmost” driver who when you signal to change lanes, deliberately speeds up so that you won’t get in front of him. There is the self-righteous enforcer who thinks that everyone should go the speed limit so he cruises in the passing lane forcing others to maneuver around him. All of these behaviors give me the daily urge to utter some kind of invective.
Several years ago, I came across the words of Evagrius of Pontus, one of the desert fathers from the late 4th century A.D.
These words hit home to me, because for much of my life I have been a person who is easily irritated, not only by inconsiderate drivers, but also by people and situations that rub me the wrong way. My irritation, resentment and bitterness towards others have often been a seething undercurrent in my life that kept me unhappy and made me an unpleasant person to be around.
And so, I decided to conduct an experiment to see if Evagrius’ advice works. I decided to apply his advice to my daily commute. I began to practice a spiritual discipline that I call, “Mindful Driving.” Whenever another motorist’s driving irritated me I decided to do 4 things.
- I placed my hand on my forehead to remind myself that I have been baptized and that I belong to Christ. (I borrowed this practice from Martin Luther, who used it whenever he felt assailed by the devil.)
- I took a deep breath to dissipate the rising adrenaline and irritation that was beginning to course through my veins.
- As I slowly released my breath, I released my anger and irritation into God’s hands.
- I silently asked God to bless the other driver.
Driving in New Jersey, I had a multitude of opportunities to put my new spiritual discipline into practice. I was pleasantly surprised at how well Evagrius’ advice worked. If someone was being rude, I could let it go without obsessing about it. I began to anticipate when someone was going to cut me off and I learned to yield the right of way without taking offense. Instead of insisting on my own rights, I took the attitude, “I’m in no hurry, you can go first.” As I result I began to arrive home at peace. I was amazed and pleased at how well the advice of a 4th century monk worked for a 21st century commuter
A long the way I learned some important things about myself.
First, I learned to my chagrin that I liked being angry and looked forward to the opportunity to vent my frustrations. For example, when I was on a long line, waiting to exit the highway, I always looked out my side view mirror in order to spot the next person who was going to cut in at the front of the line. I’d see them coming, I’d watch intently as they passed by, my irritation slowly rising, and when they merged at the last moment, I indulged in the urge “to utter some invective.” “What a self-entitled jerk,” I’d think to myself. “It must be nice to think you don’t have obey the same rules as the rest of us.” I relished giving them a piece of my mind, even if they couldn’t hear it.
If I was mistaken about their intentions, and they didn’t merge at the last moment, I would feel oddly disappointed. I had built up a good head of “righteous” anger and now I had nowhere to release it. I discovered it wasn’t that they were making me angry, rather, I was choosing to be angry and actively seeking the opportunity to vent my spleen. I thought it felt good in a perverse sort of way.
Secondly, I learned I was using my anger to engage in self-justification. My irritation reaffirmed my conviction that I was a better than most other drivers. (I think my auto insurance company might disagree with that assessment, but I held onto it nevertheless.) From the front seat of my car, I prayed a prayer similar to the one the Pharisee prayed in one of Jesus’ parables.
I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like these other drivers. I always signal before changing lanes, I never cut to the front of the line, and I rarely go more than 5 mph over the speed limit. Obviously, I must be a good person, unlike some of these other jerks!”
Of course, you remember what Jesus said about the self-righteous Pharisee and his prayer. He was so busy patting himself on the back, that the Pharisee missed out on God’s justification and forgiveness. (Luke 18:9-14)
Thirdly, I learned that my irritation caused me to become the very thing I hated in others. In order to vindicate my honor, I felt entitled to be vindictive to any person who might violate my rights. I’d tailgate in order to leave no room for someone to cut me off. When there was a traffic jam, I’d sometimes drive half-way over the shoulder to make sure that no one could pass me on the right. In short, I became a selfish, discourteous driver, all in the name of “fairness.”
I finally realized that my irritation never affected the other driver. The only person it hurt was me. While the incident only lasted a few seconds, my irritation continued for at least 15 minutes and sometimes for the better part of the day. All I was doing by being irritated was punishing myself.
The Apostle Paul says, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Taking Paul at his word, I began to bless those inconsiderate drivers instead of cursing them. I’ve never had the chance to talk with one of these folks, so I don’t know whether my blessing heaped burning coals on their heads or not. However, I do know that by blessing them, I stopped heaping burning coals on my own head and that I became a much happier and safer driver.
After about a year of this experiment mindful driving became second nature to me. Something that happened late one night became the final proof of its effectiveness.
I was driving on a limited access highway when the road split. The right two lanes were for those who wished to exit to another highway, while the left two lanes continued straight. I was in the 2nd lane from the right planning to take the exit. In front of me, on the left shoulder, was a car. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, he had overshot the exit and pulled off onto the shoulder in order to be able to reenter. Without signaling, he pulled out directly in front of me. I had to slam on my brakes, coming to a screeching and sudden stop in order to avoid hitting him.
What I find interesting is that I had no rush of adrenaline. I did not feel a need to honk the horn angrily or curse him out within the privacy of my own car. I was at perfect peace. Sheepishly he waved an apology and we continued on our way without anger or harsh words. I attribute my reaction to the change in heart that God wrought in me by practicing “mindful driving.” What should have scared the Bejesus out of me, barely ruffled my soul. Instead, I prayed and wished God’s blessing on the man whose actions could have left both of us seriously injured. In peace I made my way home.
At first glance, mindful driving seems like a silly idea. However, for me it has become a doorway to a transformed life. As I have practiced releasing my irritations on the highway, it has spilled over into other areas of my life. I no longer see irritations as problems to be squelched but as invitations to draw nearer to God. And for that, I am thankful.
©September 23, 2019 by
Rev. Michael A. Weber.
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