Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bike Talk: A Bogus Bodhisattva Is Something To Be

Bob from Granite Bay, CA writes:

My question:  with all of your years of experience, how do you control your temper when a motorist comes a bit too close to you while riding?  Especially when it appears to happen intentionally?  or if non-intentionally, it occurs when the opposing lane is clear of vehicles for the car traveling in the same direction as you?  If the lane is clear, is it asking too much for the driver to move 2-3ft to the left?  What is your secret?  is it your cool and level-headed personality that prevents you from presenting the universal hand-signal?  the common sense that prevails when you know how easily a 5000lb vehicle can snuff out anyone in a split second--that it's best to keep your pie-hole shut and both hands on your handlebars? 

I honestly try to keep a cool head whenever this happens to me, but I sheepishly admit that I am only successful maybe 20% of the time.  I am certainly not proud of it and typically feel worse afterwards even though no bodily harm has occurred.  Thanks for any advice.  In the meantime, I'll be searching for a 7-step plan......

Hi Bob,

You ask a great question, and bring up a situation that anyone who rides in the world is all too familiar with. I'm not 100% successful in always keeping my cool in stressful situations, but I do keep trying to get my percentage higher, so maybe we can do a bit to up your success rate above 20%. Remember, you're already part way there. 20% is better than 0%.

Experienced cyclist and good, mellow guy Russ Roca wrote eloquently about this dicey situation earlier this year in his article Inside an International Bike Incident. Russ does a great job of describing the situation, the rage of the driver and his own rage at the time.

In the heat of the moment, we react, just like anyone else who cares about their life or their loved one. It’s a basic human instinct. We generally keep our cool, but there was obvious malice in his driving, and we threw our arms up in a “why’d you do that” gesture. 
It is not a proud moment when, as a bike advocate, you lose your cool, but I did. Finger gestures where made, to which the driver returned the same. This is where some “blame the victim” usually creeps in and people will no doubt say that I somehow brought this whole incident upon myself, conveniently disregarding the fact that just moments before someone driving two tons of steel had threatened us with bodily injury. This point has always bothered me when I’ve read these sort of stories myself. The cyclist is suppose to not react, to be a Ghandi-esque figure at all times, not registering any discontent at the fact that two tons of steel was just maliciously steered at them with impunity. Forgive this cyclist for being imperfect and human.

As Russ notes, we are humans. Imperfect.

A while ago my friend Mark Vande Kamp had a similar close call resulting in escalating finger gestures followed by a busted bicycle and a trip to the ER. As you noted, as bike riders we're the fellows with the knives at the gunfight, so escalation is probably not the wise course of action.

But we're human, imperfect, and we often react not with logic but adrenaline. Logic and experience tells us finger gestures and shouting will do little to make the other fellow see the error of his ways but those may be our default behaviors. The problems then, is to change or channel our defaults.

I have one suggestion for changing the default that may help a bit and one trick that has worked great for me. I'll get to the trick in a minute, but here's the suggestion:

We're all humans. Imperfect. Russ said it and it's true. You're imperfect and so is the asshole driver. Their imperfection is probably not something you're going to fix right there, right now on the road. The odds are good you're not going to fix all your imperfections either.

Like that temper of yours. For my temper, I try to channel it. Instead of flipping somebody off, I flip the ringer on my bike bell. It's ridiculously useless against the driver that just buzzed me, but it keeps my fingers busy. Like chewing gum instead of smoking.

But here's the big trick: Fake it.

When I was in college I first learned about Buddhism and enlightenment. One of aspects of Buddhism I found most interesting was the idea of the Bodhisattva, "a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others." The idea of achieving the ultimate understanding of the universe, having the ability to break free of the endless cycle of birth and death and then saying "No thanks, I'll stay here and help others get across" seemed far more awesome than enlightenment itself.

And then I had my own bit of enlightenment in the form of a question: if an enlightened Bodhisattva is admirable, is a non-enlightened being, behaving in the same manner, just as admirable?

OK, you think weird things when you're a college philosophy major. But if you're lucky you live through it and it helps you live a pretty damn good life.

Here's my point. I wanted to live in a calmer, less angry world so I fake being calmer and less angry. I took Bon Jovi's advice and when the world got in my face I'd say "Have a Nice Day."

And you know, it's the damnedest thing. It works.

I'm not 100% successful, but I'm one of the calmest people I know. Kurt Vonnegut explained it well, "Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be." Smart fellow that Mr. Vonnegut.

Fake it until you make it.

Thanks for writing.

Have a nice day.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Janice in GA said...

I decided some years ago that giving the middle finger salute wasn't for me. I just don't think it's classy. I will do the "why'd you do that??" arm raise, but that's it.

I spent a while reading about bike/car accidents, and I kinda freaked myself out about them. :( So what I decided to do was to think a bit more about the GOOD interactions I have with motorists. Whenever someone passes me safely, I think "Thank you!" Sometimes if someone goes out of his/her way to wait for me or whatever, I think "You're awesome!"

It sounds seriously Pollyanna-ish, but it does make me aware that MOST of my interactions with motorists are actually pretty decent. (knock wood, LOL) That makes me happier and more relaxed on the road. I still stay very vigilant though, because you just never know. :)

Rick Risemberg said...

I'm getting better at staying calm, though I still too often offer psychological evaluations at high volume. I never gesture, though.

I do better on the other end: waving motorists through a stop sign when they actually have the right-of-way, stopping for pedestrians crossing the street and even putting my hand out to notify traffic behind me. I appear to be one of about six cyclists in LA who do this, unfortunately. Wish there were more; it's in the realm of prevention rather than cure.

As Elvis Costello sang during a particularly cynical era, "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?"

Or as Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see."

Dan said...

Great advice! I need to get a bell.

How to eat healthier said...

I love the Bon Jovi part ;) I know many people including me who should take your advise of getting calm to get results.

SeattleMnM said...

Loved the Bike Dharma teaching! In Buddhist teaching, there are 10 stages of enlightenment, or Bhumis, with 10 being the top stage. As I understand, anger doesn't stop until the 7th. So, it seems like most of us are stuck with anger for awhile.

That said, I believe you're right that "faking it" works. But, I think you can also say it's not faking anything to decide that anger and past habit aren't going to control your behavior, and to instead act mindfully and start building new habits.

I think looking at it that way helps to avoid having unacknowledged anger come out sideways as 'passive aggression' -- sound familiar, Seattle folks who think you never show anger? -- or straight out as rationalized and "justified" overt angry behavior.

To disclose my own neurosis: due to stuff ingrained early in life, I feel shame if I act out angrily, and feel shame if I don't - i.e., I feel like a "wimp". The second kind of shame is much better, of course, because it's stuff I can deal with, without the likelihood of escalating a situation by interacting negatively with another angry person.

Oh, and these days, I think I'm about 80:20 with my fake it vs. flip 'em off ratio. Do I lose points for muttering bad things under my breath?

Trailer Park Cyclist said...

I remind myself that their behavior is no doubt evidence of someone enduring a miserable existence and I take joy in the certain knowledge of their misery. Their illusory power is costing them real-time dollars per hour as they indulge in petrochemical combustion and I am also certain that they are probably smokers.

That is usually all the thought I give to them as I am easily distracted on my lazy, meandering rides. While far from a calm person by nature, when on my old steel bicycle I am an Angel, a Friend of Man, a Dreamer and a drifter and also certain that everybody gets what's coming to them, sooner or later.

I'm too lazy and busy to help them find their destiny, or to even warn them, for that matter.

They'll get there soon enough, at the rate they're traveling.

The Velo Hobo said...

I try say to myself, “maybe they have a sick child in the back seat and are rushing to the doctor’s” or “maybe they are having the worst day of their life, I hope they make it where they are going”. Sometimes this works to generate empathy instead of anger…or at least less anger.

By the way Dan: Get a brass bell, they are easier to throw and cause more damage when you hit your target. Oh no, I what I meant to say is they have a much more soothing and peaceful sound.


JuliaR said...

@ Janice in GA - that is a great attitude and way to calculate the good instead of just the bad. I will adopt that method for myself, thanks!

@ Rick R - there are more than six cyclists in LA?? Just kidding, except it doesn't seem like a cyclist's city to me. But good for you!

We should all aspire to be bodhisattvas.

Gandhi said...

Don't flip your middle finger.

Flip your pinky.

Bob said...

Thanks for the advice Kent. I appreciate you addressing it (and other's comments) on your blog. Happy riding!


Barb Chamberlain said...

My approach is similar to that of Janice and Velo Hobo: cheerful ambassadorship and cultivation of empathy.

I try to smile at drivers and I mouth "thank you" and give a smile/wave to ones who stay stopped at the stop sign while I pedal uphill toward them instead of peeling out in front when I'm closer than they think.

There was an article last year (wish I could remember the source) suggesting that drivers act out because they're secretly jealous of our much happier form of transportation. If chalking up bad behavior to envy works for you, you could try that and just pity the poor guy trapped in the hot steel cage.

I'm not just working on attitude toward drivers--I'm also working on being less judgmental toward other riders who don't behave the way they "should" according to my personal practice (pretty much vehicular cycling). Instead of my first reaction being about blowing a stop sign or whatever the rider did I'm trying to cultivate happiness that at least they're on a bike, with the desire that they behave more safely as a second reflex.

Sitting in judgment toward others isn't where I want to spend my time, and if they're engaging in bad behavior then they really don't deserve the mental energy I'd devote to being mad at them. I try to set the lady down by the stream, basically (

Then there's this graphic, which I grabbed from some other site to put on my blog:

Jared said...

Isn't that a pic of Lao Tzu? Maybe an even better model of what is needed.

MzunguEriki said...

I will try it. Mantra's have worked on other ways for me, why not in this case? thanks

Kent Peterson said...

I just saw this one on Twitter and I think it applies:

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow. -Chinese Proverb

Twitter Boddhisattva said...

If one can dispense wisdom in 140 characters, one can escape the cost of feeding 140,000 bhikkus.

glenn said...

Excellent article Kent. I generally keep any reaction to myself or to comments only pedestrians would notice. If I really want to use the finger, I'll smile, wave and maybe shout "Hey, Andy" or whatever name pops in my head, pretending I know them, on the off chance they might feel bad for the murder attempt.

On a few occasions where I couldn't help but shout at them in anger, I used the wise adage I learned many years ago from a bumper sticker "JESUS LOVES YOU ... everyone else thinks you're an a**hole". I shout the first line and leave the second line implied. Admittedly, it seems a little odd as I'm not a religious guy, but it makes me chuckle.