This past weekend I spent eight hours in a car with my little boy. I had plenty of opportunities to practice virtue and temperance, but I could have done with fewer. It was at times a sweaty-palms, white-knuckles experience, but it made me think about Stoic philosophy and how driving is a metaphor for life. Not during the drive, certainly no time for contemplating nature then, but over a restorative glass of wine much later.
I couldn’t help but notice some decidedly non-Stoic trends among drivers:
- Excessive speed. People’s unhealthy, intemperate desires take over. “I want to get there quickly, so I’ll just go faster.”
- Driving with emotion. I watched as two cars practically kissed bumpers for five minutes, because the driver in front changed into a lane that the other driver was already occupying and speeding in. The driver in front stood his “ground” and stayed in the lane he changed into. The driver behind him (could have been a woman, of course, I have no idea) appeared to feel that the slower driver should move over. I don’t know how long they stayed like this, because they were driving about 80 miles per hour and I lost sight of them.
- Android projections. Driving as if other cars are not occupied by people, with nervous systems, but by robots. We are not quite there yet.
Because the impetus for this blog was self-improvement, I must examine my own driving in light of these observed trends.
- Instead of driving faster to get away from 18-wheelers or drivers that seem to be making questionable decisions, couldn’t I just slow down and drive behind them? We all want to get to our destination quickly, but that desire is for an “external”–it is not exclusively up to us. Epictetus writes: “Remember that desire promises the attaining of what you desire . . . he who falls into desire is unfortunate . . . suppress your desires entirely; for if you desire any of the things that are not within our power, you’re bound to be unfortunate.” He goes on to remind us of our prokopton status, as that of a student of Stoicism, by saying that “those [things] that are within our power, which it would be right for you to desire, aren’t yet within your reach.” Handbook 2.
- I’m not immune to emotions, as was clear from my last blog post. I don’t necessarily alter my driving to act on them, but I have to be vigilant and not dwell on perceived “insults” from other drivers, not even for a minute. The present moment is all that matters, in driving and in life as a whole. Epictetus: “What thing, out of all those that go to make up our lives, is done better by those who are inattentive? […] Do you not realize that when once you let your mind go wandering, it is no longer within your power to recall it?” Discourses 4.12.
- It is tempting to think of a car as having a mind of its own. We can’t really see who is driving. We only know they are annoying us. If only we could reprogram them to better serve our needs. But there are in fact humans at the wheel, humans with beating hearts, who maybe are having a bad day. Why tailgate? Why cut them off? Do I want to add to the high degree of stress people typically feel every day? For this, I come back to Marcus Aurelius, in one of my favorite passages (one that is, deservedly, cited often in writings on Stoicism):
I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.” Meditations 2.1 (free online version here)
As a public service ad campaign slogan goes, “Your choices behind the wheel matter.” All of our choices matter. We can either improve things or make them worse in any given moment.
You may have already heard about the free online course “SMRT 2016,” an acronym for Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training. The site is here, and here is a blog post about it on Stoicism Today. Mr. Robertson has certainly put a lot of effort into it, defying edicts of capitalism, offering it free of charge and not selling anything. A big thanks to him for digging up the Epictetus quote on attentiveness from the Discourses that I copied and pasted above. I wanted to mention the course now because it just started a few days ago and I may not get a chance to post here again this week. Have fun, and maybe I’ll see you in the comments over in that corner of the internet. Of course you are always welcome to comment below with any thoughts, feelings, or onomatopoetic utterances.