Traffic by Rev. Anthony D. Makar


Mark Gorkin, the “Stress Doc,” offers us a poetic anthem to burnout and beyond:

For the phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.

Each of the services that makes up the BURNOUT worship series is about knowing a certain kind of pain so we can transform that fire and rise again. Last Sunday it was about being a teenager in today’s world, and in following Sundays we’ll look at pollution, then infoglut, then the death/rebirth themes of Easter.

As for today: traffic.

“Have you ever noticed,” asks George Carlin, “that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

Here in Atlanta, the 8 a.m. rush hour is from 6:30 to 9:30 a.m. The 5:00 p.m. rush hour is from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Friday’s rush hour starts Thursday morning and lasts through 2:00 a.m. Saturday.

Funny. But underneath the laughter is pain.

Although it is important to point out that there is nothing new about traffic, per se.  Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, takes us back to ancient Rome and its congestion of carts and chariots and pedestrians. The traffic got so bad that Caesar declared a daytime ban on vehicles of all kinds (except under some circumstances). Carts could enter Rome only after 3pm. The unanticipated side-effect was that no one could sleep at night, given the noise of carts and chariots rattling through the streets, alarming various animals who would then bark, squawk, neigh, screech—all of it culminating in the worst racket imaginable.

From ancient Rome, through medieval England which ticketed speeding carts, nineteenth century New York where horses were killing an average of four pedestrians per week, and then the invention of the bicycle and its aftermath: spooked horses, cyclists and noncyclists engaging in fisticuffs, city leaders trying to ban bicycles outright from their streets, and so on.

Nothing is new about traffic, per se. But once the automobile enters history, a truly new chapter begins. “The car,” says Tom Vanderbilt, “was soon to create a world of its own, a world in which humans, separated from everything outside the car but still somehow connected, would move at speeds beyond anything for which their evolutionary history had prepared them.”

And let’s really think about that: this world of its own that car traffic creates. The world we spend more time in than in eating meals with family, or going on vacation, or having sex. The world we spend more money on than on food or health care. The world of white-knuckle driving, yelling at people who can’t possibly hear you, blaming the car right in front of you in a traffic jam even though you know rationally that, whatever the cause of the traffic jam, it’s remote and not right in front.

This world of its own. Its costs to social well-being, the economy, and the environment are punishing, but here I want to focus more on the costs to our physical health and emotional well-being.

So very costly…

Positive psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that “it is entirely unpredictable and therefore a different kind of hell each day.” Humans can pretty much adapt to anything if there’s sufficient predictability, but you don’t get that with traffic. You never know, in fact, what you’re going to get: the car behind you that honks because you stopped at a stop sign and didn’t plow on through; congestion that hits an area that’s usually free flowing; the jerk that merges last minute; when YOU are the jerk that merges last minute but because you made an honest mistake, but you can’t possibly explain this to any of the cars around you, so the jerk label stays; when, after your mistake, another car aggressively follows you and you are frightened by the road rage possibilities; and so on…

The traffic world is unpredictable, and it is also incompatible with the simple flight-or-fight mechanism that our bodies are designed around. Psychologist Jerry Kennard points out that “ideally we use one or the other to dissipate stress when it occurs. Sitting in a car is incompatible with stress build up. There is no physical outlet. We can’t fight and we can’t run, so tension simply builds with no obvious outlet. When an outlet does present itself, for example when we perceive another driver to be taking advantage or not paying due attention, there’s a danger of reacting aggressively…”

But the most troubling thing to recognize about the world that car traffic creates is this: It is essentially a kind of togetherness that dehumanizes. In the world beyond car traffic, we are brought into the recognition of another’s humanity by being able to see their eyes and hear their voice and be in conversation; but these things are not possible within the car traffic world. We want it to be possible; we talk to people in other cars as if they could hear us–we persist in this simplest of human desires and actions—but our persistence flies in the face of reality.

Sitting in our cars, behind all the armor of plate glass and steel, human identity and human contact are erased. And that leads to humans acting inhuman. It just does. Road rage is not merely about our biological flight-or-fight mechanisms being frustrated, the resulting buildup of stress, the inevitable eruption of that which can no longer be tamped down. It’s also about how anonymity silences the angel on one shoulder and amplifies the devil on the other shoulder, who tells us, “You betcha, let that jerk have it, you can’t see him and can’t hear him so it’s easy to forget they’re human too, just like you. Plus, and best of all, no one’s gonna hold you accountable. No one can see you!”

Naturally, it means that the very nicest person, behind the wheel, can turn into something not so very nice at all.  (Of course, not me, Mr. Senior Minister Man.)

This is the pain. This is the fire that we want to transform to burning desire, so we can be reborn.

But how?


Need a few days off
after Sunday night drive from
the vacation house.

That’s called a “honku” which is a variety of haiku specifically meant to channel one’s road range into something more creative. Apparently, the inventor is one Aaron Naparstek who used to throw eggs at cars that irritated him. But after being confronted by an enraged, egg-splattered motorist, he decided he needing to change up strategies. He began writing honku as a form of road-rage self help, and the new poetic form caught on.

Alaska’s melting –
hope your Yukon Denali
doubles as a boat.

There are only three
types of drivers – the insane,
the morons, and me.

Atlanta traffic
easy to see why Sherman
burned this city down.

We are wanting to transform the fire to burning desire—we want to practice what the “Stress Doc” Mark Gorkin calls “safe stress”—and these honku illustrate the first of the Triple A regimen for how to do that.

The first A is about Action. Don’t allow the distressing and dehumanizing impact of the world of traffic to have its way with you. It’s that old story about the two wolves in every human heart, one helpful and one hurtful, culminating in the all-important question: which one will you feed?

The honku remind me never to forget to laugh at myself and laugh at the silliness and insanity of the inhuman traffic world.

Laughter humanizes.

Beyond laughter, other helpful actions include listening to audio-books or podcasts. Use the drive time to feed your mind.

Or how about this: How about working on your gratitude list?

Spirituality writer Jim Manney tells the story about a friend of his was stuck in traffic in New York City late on a summer Friday afternoon. “He was really stuck,” he writes, “sitting in his car on a narrow east-west cross street in Manhattan, going nowhere. He grew impatient, then angry. After a while, he started to think about how pitiful his life was. His friends were smarter, wealthier, happier than he was. He hadn’t accomplished anything significant. He was stuck in life, just as he was stuck in traffic. Then he called a friend and asked for help. The guy said, ‘if you’re just sitting there in traffic, make a gratitude list.’ So my friend pulled out a notebook and pen and made a list of all the things he was grateful for. A few were big things—family, friends, job—but most of them were little things. The weekend coming up. An excellent novel he was reading. A compliment from his boss the previous day. An exhilarating jog along the East River that morning. His comfortable car. Soon his mood lifted. The exercise in gratitude restored balance to his thinking. It wasn’t a trick. My friend saw that his life really was full of good things. Gratitude was the truth.”

If you don’t already have one, sometime today brave the traffic and go buy a gratitude journal and keep it near the driver’s seat. Use it.

Definitely a helpful action behind the wheel is to practice some kind of open-eye mindfulness meditation. It helps dissipate the stress beautifully. In a moment we’re going to try an example of this together.

The first A is about Action, and now consider the second A: Acceptance. Acceptance is actually the prerequisite for Action, because if you can’t accept the nature of the traffic reality that confronts you in the moment—if you want to invest your energy in some form of resenting it and denying that it has no right to exist or should not exist—then you won’t have any energy available to you for creative actions like humor or listening to an audio-book or keeping a gratitude list or meditating…

But be sure to be clear on one thing: the Acceptance I’m talking about isn’t saying that you have to like traffic. It’s about saying: “I accept the situation as it is right now even if I don’t like it.” This key insight comes from psychologist Paul Coleman, who says, “Breathing in acceptance when the situation is painful is like being inoculated for a disease. It allows you to take in a bit of what ails you to ward off the greater, more deadly disease. When you accept what is, you can then figure out with greater calmness and clarity what, if anything, you might do about your circumstances.”

Acceptance means accepting a tiny piece of traffic horribleness into you, only to prevent traffic horribleness wholly consuming you from the outside in.

Inoculation. That’s what Acceptance is all about.

But even before Acceptance, what is needed is the third and last A: Attitude. Listen to what Zen teacher Joko Beck has to say: “Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the guru.”

Take this Zen attitude into traffic, into everywhere you go, and you will stay human and you will thrive.

You will most assuredly be able to practice “safe stress.”

Every moment is the guru.

Every moment.