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We are civilized
by Joseph Walker
Apr 02, 2012 | 1070 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I don’t get it. I mean, I was just driving along, enjoying a sudden burst of spring-like weather at winter’s end. When I glanced in the mirror and saw that teenage girl in the red sedan waving at me, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to smile and wave back.

Then I saw the look on her face. My wave didn’t please her. In fact, it seemed to infuriate her. She started waving at me again. With both hands. Only now I could see that she wasn’t waving, exactly. She was just . . . you know . . . gesturing. Like she was saying, “We’re number one!” Viciously. And not with her index finger, if you know what I mean.

Oh, and by the way – her fingernails were painted red. For whatever that’s worth.

I was puzzled. I know I’m not the best driver in the world – my kids remind me of that regularly – but I couldn’t for the life of me remember doing anything that would incite such rage. I hadn’t even changed lanes or speeds for several miles, let alone performed an act of highway impudence so malevolent as to warrant a two-fisted salute. So to speak.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I smiled and waved back. Again. With both hands.

This really seemed to outrage the girl and her passengers. She roared into the left turn lane and sped around me. As she raced past, a torrent of profanity and gesturing was unleashed in my direction from all four girls in the car. I tried to ignore it, although a couple of the more creative oaths did catch my attention. And yes, I confess, I did notice they were all wearing red fingernail polish. For whatever that’s worth.

As it turned out, both cars had to stop for a red light, with me in the lane next to them. From my perspective a couple of cars behind I could see that they were bouncing around in the car, laughing and giving each other high fives – as if they’d just won the Finger-Flipping, Profanity-Shouting, Old Guy-Intimidating Championship of the World. They were clearly pleased with themselves, even more so when they saw that my lane was moving before theirs, which meant I would drive past them and they would get another shot at me – which they took.

Gleefully.

And that’s the part I don’t understand. I’m willing to assume that I made a driving error that justified the driver’s indignation. I can understand being angry with a driver who does something stupid on the road. Believe me, I’ve dubbed a few “idiots” and “jerks” in my life behind the wheel. But anger has always made me feel miserable and . . . well . . . angry. I don’t understand the exhilaration of hostility or the joy of anger.

And yet we see it all around us today: associates laughing about how they told off some hapless store clerk, athletes bragging about delivering a vicious cheap shot, young people celebrating cruelty to others and people all around the country lining up to see movies that portray humiliation as humor and vicious killers as heroes.

Driving home after my encounter with the Red-Nailed Finger Flippers, a line from “Camelot” popped into my mind. When King Arthur finally admits to himself that his wife and his most-trusted friend are having an affair, his first reaction is anger. He rages that he will exact “a man’s vengeance,” but he finds no joy or satisfaction in his wrath. He regains control of himself, reasoning that it couldn’t possibly “be civilized to destroy that which I love.” Through his anguish he resolves to overcome the dark side of his nature, proclaiming: “We are civilized!”

Civility isn’t a high priority these days. But historically, it’s one of the things that separate us from other species. It seems to me that as we become less civilized we become less human, and less receptive to the real joy that comes from patience, tolerance, forgiveness and love. And if we’re not careful, one day we’ll find ourselves completely out of control, trying to dominate a world in which our only competitive advantage over other animals is our thumbs.

And, of course, our fingers – red-nailed or otherwise.

(To read more by Joseph B. Walker please go to www.josephbwalker.com.)
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