The Reasonable Side of “Road Rage”

We hear a lot about “road rage.”

What we generally hear is that it’s something that overpowers you, something you cannot control, something that some external agent must “treat” to rid you of.

That’s part of what I mean by the false “medicalization” of problems in daily life.

The source of road rage, if you experience it, isn’t something external. It’s your own mind. You’re not feeling rage on purpose, but your mind is assuming or thinking certain things which make rage more likely, if not inevitable. Your rage is simply the product of ideas you hold about various things. You can’t change or fix it without taking a look at what’s actually going on in your mind.

Most people who experience road rage don’t carry it to its logical conclusion. We hear about the few cases where they do (fist fights, guns drawn, etc.), but most people who suffer form road rage experience it within the confines of their own minds, and car.

I’ve heard it said that while driving, your personality inevitably comes out. If you’re an aggressive or assertive personality, your driving will tend to be that way; if you’re humble or passive, your driving will tend to be that way too.

I’m not sure that’s always or absolutely true. Sometimes people have sides to their personality that come out when they’re driving, sides that stay inside in other contexts. For example, a shy or quiet person when around other people might be an aggressive driver, because the otherwise shy and quiet person doesn’t feel the same inhibitions when alone in his or her car.

I do think that people’s basic, underlying ideas about life come out in their driving. One’s basic, inner philosophy of life (in most people philosophy is implicit, but it’s there) tends to come out while driving, especially in unusual or key situations.

Recently, for example, I witnessed a woman pull out into freeway traffic, where the average speed was about 75-80 mph. For whatever reason, she had been on the side of the road, and was now resuming her travel on the freeway. While merging with oncoming traffic, she was looking down (the whole time) at something in her car. Most likely, and presumably, this was her telephone or her texts. For the full five or so seconds that I saw her, she was looking down — while simultaneously driving out into traffic where everyone was going 75-80 mph.

Observation of this kind of thing is what causes anger or frustration in many reasonable people, including some element of road rage. These things happen literally every day, and (in my own observation) they appear to be more frequent and worse than ever before.

I don’t experience rage about this for two reasons. One, I know what I cannot control. I simply cannot control another’s evasions, stupidity or lack of attention to obvious self-preservation. I never have been able to control these things (other than within myself), and I never will be. I’m entirely and totally at peace with this fact. All of my efforts and energy are saved for self-preservation (including the avoidance of people like this on the road, when they make stupid decisions).

The other reason I don’t experience rage over this is because I find it helpful to (later on) think about, “What underlying philosophy or ideology of life enables a person to do this?” My passion is for reason, and while I don’t engage in excuse-making, I always wish to understand other people’s actions, even irrational ones, as best as I can.

I know nothing about this driver other than what I saw. But what I saw revealed plenty. This is somebody who, at least in this context (and likely other contexts) operates on the false belief, “If I’m not looking at something, it cannot be a danger to me.” Or: “Reality (e.g., the highway) is not happening if I’m not looking at it.”

Wow. That’s a serious philosophical premise, if you think about it.

If asked to say “true” or “false” to this statement, I realize she might say, “False.” But just because you hold an idea to be false doesn’t mean you will never act on it. This woman obviously does, even in contexts where it matters most, where cars are going 80 mph and you’re not even looking to see if they’re coming into your space because — well, because someone is texting you, and in that moment the text is more important, even more important than not getting smashed or crushed to death.

Underlying philosophical ideas matter in daily life. Perhaps you’re unaware of them, but you’re still operating on them just the same.

Here’s another example of what I mean by an “underlying philosophical idea.” A lot of people go through life assuming that someone, somehow, will always take care of them. Some people had their mommies and daddies tell them this, and they believed everything “will always be all right,” regardless of facts, circumstances or the efforts occasionally required to make sure — yourself — that all will be all well, or at least as well as possible.

Some people transfer or mentally/subconsciously “graft” this mommy/daddy thing (when they have those nicer kinds of mommies or daddies) onto entities such as “God,” or maybe society, or maybe the government, or maybe the community, or maybe the local minister — whoever it is, somebody, somehow, will always make sure I’m OK. Somebody will always take care of me — in fact, they should do so (that’s today’s entitlement mentality speaking, in the latter part.)

This sort of false comfort leads to the lack of the rational anxiety (or simply focus, attention) required to get through life in the most efficacious of ways, whether it’s making decisions about your finances, your marriage, your career, your house or your job — or whether it’s as fleeting a decision as pulling into traffic. Ideas are everywhere, no matter how irrelevant you may claim they are. This woman has one kind of idea, which leads her to pull into traffic without worry, while a person with different kinds of ideas handles the same situation very differently.

Fortunately for that woman who pulls into traffic with little or no concern for her own self-preservation, there are people like myself (and many others) who do think, watch and care very much about their own self-preservation — on the highway, or elsewhere. That night, or the following Sunday, she probably prayed thanks to God, or maybe to Obama, or to the Pope, or the Reverend So-and-So, or some vague abstraction related to “Everything-Happens-For-A-Reason” for getting her safely through that day.

I wonder if people like that ever know on what they’re really depending.

So when you experience any given emotion, including “road rage” or anything similar, resist the urge to oversimplify into some kind of false medical illness proffered by some snake-oil psychologist.

There’s a lot more going on in your mind than you may realize. Road rage, and things like it, are only the tip of the psychological and philosophical iceberg.

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