It seems I have many opportunities to moan about the traffic around here.
One of my classes this quarter meets from 3 to 5 in the afternoon. It’s not exactly the best time of day for me to be lecturing on theological topics that are brand new to many of my students. Most of us in the room, including myself, are at a low ebb energy-wise. Some students come slumping into the classroom and put their heads down on their desks; some look glassy-eyed; some yawn rather demonstratively.
But the other complication with the time is what it does to my commute. Leaving campus at 5 PM puts me smack in the middle of the rush hour madness (and why do they call it “rush hour” when no one can actually rush anywhere?). So I strategically decide to hang around the office, getting some work done in a building that’s gone largely quiet. After about an hour and a half, I check the online traffic report, to see if the roads have cleared. If it looks good, I leave for home. If not, I hang around for another 15 to 20 minutes, and check again.
I checked the traffic at 6:30 last night. The map showed a little slowing here and there, but for the most part, predicted a good commute. I took a few minutes to finish what I was doing, then packed up, went down to my car, and began the long drive home.
What I didn’t know was that just about the time I was checking the traffic report, an accident was happening a little over 15 miles down the road. The drive home was like trying to get out of a stadium parking lot at the end of a sold-out ball game or concert–a 15-mile long parking lot. All five lanes of the freeway were shut down, and had to be funneled into a single one-lane off-ramp. Some tried to merge slowly and carefully; some zoomed recklessly into whatever small opening they could find. Some avoided eye contact with other drivers as they refused to let them in, then tried to shoehorn their own way into the next lane. We could have used a whole squad of traffic police to sort out the mess. Instead, we had but one bored officer with a flashlight, robotically waving everyone toward the exit.
I knew the surface streets well enough to be able to navigate relatively smoothly to the next on-ramp, and from there, the freeway was almost eerily empty, as if the rapture had already happened and I missed it. The rest of the commute was effortless.
That’s not to say that I didn’t complain to my wife once I got home. She was appropriately sympathetic, registering shock and dismay while I poured out my tale of woe. In part, I was bent out of shape because my plan hadn’t worked like it should have. With the perfect vision of hindsight, I realized that if I had simply left at 5 o’clock, the commute would have been the same or shorter, and I would have been home much, much sooner.
Out of curiosity, I went to the computer and checked the traffic again. To be honest, part of me was looking for someone to blame. Did the traffic service get it wrong? Maybe I should have used that other service–maybe they got it right, and I could have avoided all this trouble. Anything to give me back the illusion of control.
The freeway, apparently, was still in chaos. Two new accidents had occurred, plus a vehicle fire. According to news reports, the problems started when a motorcyclist went down, and the driver of a big rig jammed on his brakes to avoid hitting him, shifting his load of lumber and stalling his engine. Traffic was partially blocked until someone could help the truck driver secure his load and get on his way.
But that’s not what closed the freeway. Police shut it down in both directions because there was a suicide jumper on the overpass. At the very time I was jockeying in frustration to get off the freeway, police were talking to a young man who was distraught over a broken relationship, preparing to throw himself onto the freeway below. Thankfully, the officers successfully talked the man down, and he was taken to a hospital for evaluation and observation.
I was left with the question: how much of my own daily frustration stems from a self-centered blindness to the suffering of others? Our lives are connected in an invisible nexus of cause and effect, connected even to those whom we have never met and never will. A young man is distressed, convinced that his life has become worthless. And through a barely traceable chain of events, his distress becomes the cause of my frustration. I, however, am unaware of it. And in that ignorance, I am tempted to believe that the story that matters most is my own–that it’s all about my little drama of how the world sometimes seems to conspire to get in my way. I’m sure the young man would tell the story differently, as would the police officers who pleaded for his life.
Only God sees the story whole.
And I don’t think he merely wants me to learn to be more patient within my own story, but to remember that there is far more going on than meets the eye. The world is a taut and vibrating web of both brokenness and salvation, and I am not at its center. None of us is.
I could have realized this sooner, if I had not been wrapped up in feeling sorry for myself for a bit of bad luck. This kind of thing has happened before; suicide jumpers are not unknown on this stretch of road. It would take a fairly dire or dangerous situation to close the freeway completely. But my thoughts didn’t go there.
Perhaps, with the prompting of the Spirit, next time they will. It would be yet one more way to remember that I am not the central character in the biblical drama that is playing out all around me. And what kind of patience, or even compassion, hope, and joy, might be possible if that fact were finally to sink in?