Dear John: Last week I was stuck in traffic on the Bowen bridge here in Asheville. As I was trying to merge onto the bridge, a guy in a black Mercedes SUV wouldn’t let me in. So I sped up, and basically forced my car in ahead of his.
He made a point of laying on his horn and flashing his lights at me—but the joke was on him, because my car stereo still works, and I was being blinded by the sun anyways.
While subsequently sitting in traffic, I got to thinking about how I’d just been willing to cause a car accident rather than surrender one car space. I felt increasingly bad about the whole thing. Not so much because of what I’d done, but because of what my doing it said about me.
The question that kept growing in my mind and heart was, basically, “What kind of person am I, that I count as a big moral victory something as trivial as getting my own way in traffic?”
That moment, that question, turned into, for me, the proverbial string you pull on a sweater. The protective outer layer that I wear—the one that over the course of my life I’ve knit for myself, one stitch at a time, so that it finally fit me so well I wasn’t even aware I was wearing it—pretty quickly unravelled.
Looking at myself now, naked to the world, as it were, I don’t like what I see. I’ve always thought I was a good person. But the ugly truth of it is that I’m just . . . well, not.
When I look back on my life, I don’t see a lot of charity, generosity, patience, largeness of spirit. What I mainly see is selfishness, impatience, and a meanness of spirit. I’ve always put first my concerns, my desires, my needs. And I see now how much wrong I’ve done—how much pain I’ve caused others—because of that.
You wouldn’t think one little traffic incident could trigger all this, but for some reason it has. For the last few days I’ve been living with the fact that I am (in essence if not absolutely always in deed) a generally awful person. Which, again, is contrary to what I’ve always thought about myself.
You seem like someone who has given a lot of thought to these kinds of matters. So I thought I’d ask you: What, now, for me?
Answer: First, congratulations. You’ve had a crisis of conscience. That is a rare and beautiful thing. It’s how people get better. If enough people have such a crisis, the world will heal.
We’re all born with a moral compass, which, alas, many of us find too easy to ignore as we continue recklessly and blindly careening our way towards the next big curve in the road.
But that’s not what you’re doing—or not anymore! When your moral compass unexpectedly rolled out from underneath your driver’s seat, you didn’t quickly kick the thing back under there and pretend you didn’t see it. You dusted it off, placed it back onto your dashboard, and are now, it sounds to me, ready to steer a whole new direction for yourself.
But first you’ve had to pull over, stop, and assess not just where you’re going, but where you’ve been. And that’s fine. It’s a necessary step in what you’re going through. It’s not a problem.
The main thing is to continue paying attention to what’s happened to you. You’ve been knocked right. That means something. Let it mean everything it can mean to you—everything it will mean to you, if only you let it.
Where you can apologize and/or make amends for any wrong you’ve done, do. Ask for forgiveness. Where it’s not possible or feasible to do that, forgive yourself. That’s all you can do.
And then grab onto the new steering wheel you’ve been given, and hang on. You’re going somewhere worth being.
Send your question to John@JohnShore.com—or use our Contact form. (Letters may be edited for brevity or clarity, and will be published anonymously.)