I wasn’t even running late. At a quarter to five, I had about a half hour to get to an office that was just over a mile away. The thing is that I had multiple things on my mind, such as the limited number of checks at my disposal that week. I’d just ordered more, but in all likelihood they wouldn’t arrive before several bills were due. Then there was the form I was to fax off to the hospital: my wife’s healthcare plan. Would I have time for a quick trip to Kinko’s? I wondered.
Driving alongside the high school, I glanced to my left, then to my right. As my eyes passed over the digital clock next to the steering wheel, I noted an SUV about thirty yards ahead of me, but thought nothing of it. It was a twenty five mile per hour zone, or thereabouts, not that everyone adheres strictly to that limit. I was going around thirty, possibly a bit faster, and the SUV? Okay, maybe it was slowing down, obeying the speed limit, being more attentive to the distractible teens ambling along the sidewalkless road. Meanwhile, as my thoughts converged on a narrowing lane of consciousness, one more managed to squeeze in: wait, is that car even moving? I was still traveling at thirty plus miles per hour. The SUV, my disbelieving eyes notwithstanding, had ground to a halt with its indicator light clearly on, signifying a turn it was patiently waiting to make.
There was no way, I thought—no way I’d avoid a collision. I was about ten yards away, and at the speed I was going, contact was imminent. Still, I slammed on the brakes, thinking I’d turn my car to its side and crash into the back of the SUV with my driver’s side door leading the plunge. Less damage, I figured–to the car? me? It didn’t happen like that. Moments later, after a split second wherein I’d resigned myself not only to a crash but also personal injury, the front of my car hit the bumper of the SUV, the impact jolting the vehicle forward as I came to a shuddering halt. There was little if any time to feel anything: no pain, no relief for not having pain; no time, even, to process the sound of metal crunching. Immediately, the driver of the SUV, an middle-aged man wearing glasses who resembled the haunted leading man of Breaking Bad, exited and marched—no, he strode—towards me. As he reached my door he stopped and looked down through my window, staring at my face. He flinched like he was tempted to reach out, grab the door handle, and then pull me from my car. Instead, he waited, chomping on the bit to say something unpleasant.
“I’m sorry, are you okay?” I managed miraculously as I rose from my car.
“I’m pissed off and feel like kicking your ass,” shouted the man, his glasses shaking. I was shaking too. Had I looked down I might have seen his fists clenched, held in check by his side, but poised to strike at the slightest provocation. I didn’t look down. There was none of that looking up or down, so to speak—none of those provocative right brain gestures. Instead my eyes glanced off his face and into the distance with fleeting connection. It was a reptilian act, this look of mine: aversive, escapist; seeking the still territory. Peace.
“Please don’t,” I simply replied. Other words came to mind, don’t get me wrong. Talking to others since this incident, I speculate that some combination of intuition and training, my attachment gifts or pathology, depending on one’s point of view, clicked in and took over. You see, there were rules afoot in the above described moment: rules that may apply to men and women, but especially to men. Rule one says that if you want to not escalate a dispute following a threat, you must not counterthreat. This isn’t difficult to understand. It’s somewhat harder to execute, of course, again depending on your point of view. Rule two, however, is more obscure, much less talked about, and in my opinion, almost exquisitely difficult to execute. Rule two says that if you want to diffuse a threat, you must not state or even imply that the aggressor cannot do what he or she threatens. In order to proceed safely, as my loved ones (especially the women) would demand, I had to bite down—as in bite down hard—on the following type of answer: oh yeah, why don’t you give it your best shot?
Call it fear. Call it training. Call it empathy. Call it self preservation. Something moved me, quite consciously I might add, to be short, reasoned, yet uninflammatory in my response. Over the next minute or so, the other driver and I exchanged information while my body decompressed, my nerves rattled, and my shame—my shame at being a bad driver, that is—percolated. My adversary was soon quieted, possibly disoriented, and five minutes later he was on his way, muttering that he or his insurance company would “be in touch”. Another kind of threat. On the one hand, he too may have seen the wisdom of not escalating: why risk trouble for an assault if a judgment of my fault regarding the accident was impending? Secondly, upon noting his own lack of injury plus the relative lack of damage to his vehicle (his got scratches; I got the worst of it), he may have been decompressing also, not to mention feeling relieved that he hadn’t lost control and struck me. As I proffered my license and policy, he may have felt my defeat, my two-fold humiliation: my implied acknowledgement of fault; my swallowing of his threat without reprisal or counter-provocation.
Within the confines of a subculture that places value, real value, upon the undefended experience of fear, I can feel unjudged, held, perhaps even admired. It’s one of the perks of being a therapist, the immersion into this kind of sensibility. Some will comment that by appealing for no harm, for myself at least and possibly for the other driver, I had demonstrated real strength. I had presented myself with dignity, acted like the bigger man.
Who knows if my now absented adversary will think of these things, process notions of masculinity alongside the experience of trauma, mine or his? I hope he will. From within my fantasy, I hope that he will recall the rage with which he initially approached me; the transformation in him that seemed to take place as he observed my shaken, non-threatening demeanor; my disarming yet unprideful statement to him. In my book, Working Through Rehab: An Inside Look at Adolescent Drug Treatment, I write about kids who might not even conceive of the lessons I draw from this accident. I write about kids with severe attachment pathology, long histories of violence, substance abuse to medicate feelings like fear and shame; a habit of psychic equivalence wherein feeling equals fact; a baseline bias towards survival in which time and perspective is shortened, split seconds become nanoseconds, and empathy—that capacity to feel into another and step outside of oneself—is forsaken. Observe the following passage from WTR:
“On the surface, it seemed to me that kids got into fights not so much because of gang rivalries or social marginalization, but instead because of more plainly interpersonal conflicts, such as that incident with Eddie and his hapless rival. Someone gets looked at the wrong way, and feels disrespected; someone’s shoulder gets bumped, and feels threatened, at risk of being a punk. For those feeling a surfeit of frustrations or humiliations in their lives, and without a place, the aptitude, or even the permission to speak openly of these stressors, “stupid stuff” becomes inflated in meaning. Seemingly trivial stressors are the proverbial straws on camels’ backs. As a result, thousands of clients have struggled their way through Therapeutic Communities walking a knife edge.”
**photo by Helnwein