Brooks: How would Jesus drive?

Brooks: How would Jesus drive?

January 6th, 2018 by David Brooks in Opinion Free Press Commentary

Over the past several years we have done an outstanding job of putting total sleazoids at the top of our society. So it was good to get a reminder, from Pope Francis in his New Year's Eve homily, that the people who have the most influence on society are actually the normal folks, through their normal, everyday gestures: being kind in public places, attentive to the elderly. The pope called such people, in a beautiful phrase, "the artisans of the common good."

Small deeds, he said, "express concretely love for the city without giving speeches, without publicity, but with a style of practical civic education for daily life."

The pope focused especially on driving, praising those people "who move in traffic with good sense and prudence." As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution points out, driving is precisely the sort of everyday activity through which people mold the culture of their community.

If you speed up so I can't merge into your lane, you're teaching me that the society around here is basically competitive, not cooperative. If, on the other hand, you give me a friendly wave after I let you in, you're teaching me that this is a place where a kindness is recognized and gratitude is expressed.

If you feel perfectly fine doing a three-point turn in the middle of a busy street, blocking everybody else going both ways, you teach me that people here are selfish and feel entitled. But if you get over to the right and wait your turn in a crowded highway exit lane, rather than cutting in at the last moment, that teaches me that there's a sense of fairness and equality, and that people feel embedded in the group.

Driving is governed by law, but it's also shaped by norms. If enough people adopt the same driving style, then that behavior hardens into a communal disposition. Once people understand what is normal around here, more people tend to drive that way, too, and you get this amplified, snowball effect. Kindness breeds kindness. Aggression breeds aggression.

We all know that driving cultures vary widely from city to city. My impression is that people in Seattle dawdle, people in Los Angeles get right up on your tail but are pretty skilled about it, and those of us from the New York/New Jersey area treat driving as if it were foreplay to genocide.

Studies have been done, of course. According to Allstate, the most accident-prone drivers live in Boston; Baltimore; Worcester, Mass.; Washington; and Springfield, Mass. (Way to go, Massachusetts!) The safest drivers live in Kansas City, Kan; Brownsville, Texas; Madison, Wis.; and Huntsville, Ala.

Driving means making a thousand small moral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity.

Driving puts you in a constant position of asking, Are my needs more important than everybody else's, or are we all equal?

Driving also puts you in a position where you are periodically having to overrule your desire for revenge. When somebody cuts you off, you want to punish the jerk and enforce all that is right and good. But that only leads to a cycle of even worse driving, so it's better, as Francis would say, to turn the other cheek. How would Jesus drive?

In short, driving puts you into social situations in which you have to co-construct a shared culture of civility, and go against your own primeval selfishness, and it does so while you are encased in what is potentially a 4,000-pound metal weapon.

Of course, we are all appalled at the clowns who are bespoiling our culture from the top. But I'm going to try to remember one lesson when I hit the road: Though I may be surrounded by idiots, I'm potentially an artisan of the common good.

The New York Times

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315