Advent season for Christians means reading and listening to the words of the prophet Isaiah regarding the future world and the coming of the Prince of Peace, a world where heaven and earth fully overlap and all is eventually put right, sublimely described as a place where
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6).
For now, we have Donald Trump to lead us. As Time magazine put it on its “Person of the Year” cover featuring the President-elect, we are currently the “divided states of America.” What can be done to heal this deep division that was clarified by the recent presidential election? I think what is needed is more intentional personal reflection and development by every American. Ask yourself this: when is the last time you changed your mind about something substantial? I don’t mean switching brands of tile cleaner, or even deciding that you really do like Indian food. No, I mean substantial changes, a change on an issue that affects your attitude, how you give away your money, a theological doctrine, how you feel about gay people, how you feel about pro-life supporters. Or do you have life all figured out to the point where you no longer have to think deeply about any important issue? Really? Are you positive a flat tax is not viable? Are you absolutely sure about the line where gun control ends and infringement of 2nd amendment rights begins? Are you totally convinced that third trimester abortion is OK?
If we all just opened ourselves up to further exploring even just one issue where we’re a bit fuzzy and not overly confident in our knowledge of its nuances, I think we could begin to fill in the valley that seems to divides us. But this requires a responsibility, on everyone’s part, to educate ourselves. Read, discuss, ask questions. Learn something new.
I would like to announce something small that
I have recently changed my mind about: the
relationship between pedestrians and automobile drivers. This may seem rather inconsequential, but I suspect for everyone it could get at the heart of some deeper issues. For years I have driven under the assumption that since I was in a motorized vehicle, I inherently had the right of way on the roads–even at crosswalks. Of course, at intersections pedestrians were fine, as long as I was stopped or coming to a stop for a red light or stop sign. Other than that, though, pedestrian and pedestrian crosswalks were simply a nuisance to me.
Time spent in Aspen, CO the past two summers has helped to change my view of pedestrians. Aspen is in some ways a foretaste of that heavenly realm Isaiah speaks of (which has something to do with Aspen having the highest real estate prices in the U.S.). No one there ever seems rushed and everyone seems happy. What particularly struck me was how patiently cars waited for pedestrians, and how unconcerned pedestrians were about cars. Pedestrians just step out into the crosswalks without a care in the world for the tons of lethal metal rolling towards them. There was an acceptance by everyone, it seemed, for the law–pedestrians have the right of way.
It’s the crosswalks not at intersections that really changed me, though. Pedestrians would walk right out into the street, not even looking, and cars would gently come to an acquiescing stop for them. No honking, no inching testily forward as more pedestrians crossed the street. Just patient waiting. Because, after all, that’s the law. Pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks–period. I have come to fully embrace that and respect a pedestrian’s right to make me stop, no matter how fast I’m going or how big a rush I’m in.
Why was I so resistant to granting pedestrians their lawful rights? Because I was in a car, and was more powerful than them. Might makes right. I suppose I also felt that streets were made for cars, so cars naturally always had the right to pass. A completely alternate view, though, is the fact that streets have interrupted and made dangerous the millennia-old concept of ‘walking.’ A concession to the danger introduced by automobiles is the crosswalk–a completely safe haven for humans to walk.
So, Aspen showed me a world where cars and pedestrians truly can dwell together in peace and harmony. I bought into the idea, and am now a better citizen towards pedestrians.
But this change did not come before I also realized, and corrected, a deeper attitude problem towards pedestrians. I used to judge pedestrians. If I was stopped waiting for a pedestrian, they had better be quick about it. They should speed up so that I can get going! Why are they walking so slow?! Don’t they realize how selfish they’re being? How arrogant, to hold up traffic while they take their own sweet time!
This is where a thought from David Foster Wallace and his famous commencement speech “This Is Water” was helpful:
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I decided I could choose how I thought about those pedestrians, and I could choose a less toxic, more loving mental process. Maybe the pedestrian is praying; maybe they have a disability; maybe they’re just tired. I can now even extend this attitude to pedestrians that (gasp!) are not in a crosswalk. At the college where I teach, one intersection is well known for having students obliviously walking diagonally through the intersection. This used to drive me absolutely nuts, but not so much anymore. Students know that pedestrians always have the right of way, even without a crosswalk. I am willing to grant them their right to not get run down by a car, but I also now choose not to judge their moral character based merely on the fact that they’re taking a short-cut in walking.
Everyone could use an attitude adjustment about some issue or other. At least give it a try. Strive for what David Foster Wallace was striving for:
To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
It will take a long time before we reach that sublime point where the Trump supporters and the Hillary supporters graze together, and “their young shall lie down together,” but we can at least try to see each other’s point of view, and learn again how to discuss our differences, and perhaps even have our own minds open and changed.
"The Peaceable Kingdom" painting by Edward Hicks. Photo by Ralph Dally with permission (unmodified).