Last Tuesday afternoon, I got on my bicycle and made my way down Portland’s Ankeny bike route. I was scheduled to meet a friend at a coffee shop located perhaps twenty blocks from the church at which I serve. The winter wind was blowing hard – it was like climbing a steep hill even when I was on the level. And I suppose that I must have been going pretty slowly, because a woman rolled down the window of her truck and began to scold me for my lack of speed.
“You are,” she righteously informed me, “causing road rage.”
And then she drove away.
I felt somewhat startled.
As I parked my bike and walked into the coffee shop, I thought about the woman, about the strange and kind of distressing encounter that we had just shared. There is a pretty big power imbalance built into the relationship between a truck and a bike, and I feel pretty vulnerable when someone directs anger my way while sitting inside a vehicle that, with the smallest twitch of the wheel, could end my life.
Now, maybe because so much of the landscape of my imagination is built out of books, I began to wonder about what had just occurred through the lens of two texts. I thought about my own reaction to the woman through Herman Melville’s classic, “Moby Dick.” And I thought about the woman herself through Marhsall Rosenberg’s 2003 book, “Nonviolent Communication.“
Bear with me.
One of my favourite moments in “Moby Dick” comes when two of the characters are huddled under the blankets, warm in a cold room, only their noses sticking out and experiencing the chill. One of them observes that you can’t really enjoy being warm unless a tiny bit of you is cold.
Normally the drivers in Portland are just fabulous about cyclists: I’m used to folks giving me lots of room when they pass and yielding in order to let me cross thoroughfares. I am thoroughly unaccustomed to the kind of hostility that I experienced last week.
So, hectoring woman in the truck: thank you. My encounter with you was a chilly-nose moment. Your choice to unbottle your anger at me reminded of just how good I have it most of the time. Funnily enough, improbably enough, your actions were a reminder to me to be grateful.
I first read “Nonviolent Communication” shortly after its publication. My sister-in-law had given a copy to me: she said that it had been a huge help to her in navigating conflict in her workplace. The aspect of the book that I remembered on Tuesday was the part where Rosenberg shares the beautiful and powerful thesis that you and I are in control of our own feelings. We can, Rosenberg, says become angry or sad or happy or excited or whatever. But no one can make us feel anything.
Now, at first blush that thesis might sound like it lets the world’s bullies off the hook, that it denies the legitimate anger that we may feel when we encounter cruelty or injustice (or an inordinately slow bicyclist). But actually it does the opposite: it allows us to reclaim a huge amount of our power. Because if Rosenberg is right, if no one can make you or me feel anything, then we have way more authorship over our lives than we may have ever suspected or allowed.
You and I are totally free to decide that anger is an appropriate and good response to someone’s behavior. And we are equally free to decide that we aren’t going to feel that way if we don’t want to.
To tell another person, “You made me angry” (a statement that, as my old friend Mike observed when I shared this story with him, is implicit in the accusation “You are causing road rage”) is to cede control. Such a statement makes us into spectators in our own lives. It might even make us into victims in our own story.
And so, in the unlikely event that these words reach the woman in the truck, there’s something that I want to say to you:
No, I am not causing road rage, in you or anyone else. The cold wind and my steady march into middle age may mean that I peddle a bike more slowly than you would like.
But I am not making you enraged.
The reason that I insist so strongly is not that it bothers me to think that I am the author of your anger. (Indeed, I kind of like the idea of having super powers.) It is that I know from experience that you will be way more free if you do not give me the power to be the author of anger.
And you are free. Much as I am free to choose gratitude, you are free to choose your reaction to the world for yourself.
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