Naming Our Abuse: Driving Again

When beginning my read of the book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, by David J. Morris, I was reminded of why my thoughts about driving again diverged in a wood between two distinct sorts of thoughts: “The lesson taught by the [Iraq] war was clear: to be human is to be small, powerless, and subject to the forces of randomness. Every veteran knows this. Knowing this is what makes it hard to step into airplanes. Knowing this is what makes it hard to stand in large crowds. Knowing this is what makes it hard to drive a car (5).” On the one hand we have my very panicky thoughts about what it means to be driving again, and the absence of security in transportation. On the other hand there is the arrogant claims of self-mastery that are given in late Victorian poems like “Invictus.” Both of these issues combine over the issue of responsibility and freedom. Given that we are responsible for what we do but not responsible for the circumstances we have to work with, there is a strong tension between our context and our own domain of control.

I remember watching the movie Invictus in the theaters, and in the movie the secular saint Nelson Mandela read the poem “Invictus” to a mixed-race team of South African rugby players in a pageant of racial harmony and reconciliation. The poem itself was written by William Earnest Henley, an amputee from complications of tuberculosis whose entire reputation rests on this one poem, a dark ode to Victorian fantasies of self-mastery, fantasies that, it should be noted, Nelson Mandela shared. Yet where was his self-mastery when it came to keeping his own lusts under control and staying loyal to the wife who had long stood by his side when he was imprisoned because of his violence and folly? It was nowhere to be found, a reminder of the limits of self-mastery. The poem itself is a short one, and reads as follows:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul [1].”

A great deal of this poem is posing, the sort of posing that encourages rebels and so-called freedom fighters, the same people whose arrogant belief in their own self-mastery makes them the tyrants of the people they rule over if they achieve their political goals. Perhaps the point of the suffering and dark night and the menace we face in our lives was meant to help us to be compassionate to others, to recognize that our strength is small, that our mastery is incomplete, and that we ought not to be arrogant about our own strength, but to encourage others. In some cases, as in the use of this poem as an encouragement among fellow prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton, this purpose seems to have been fulfilled, in that the poem was used as encouragement rather than braggadocio. At other times, as in its use by condemned terrorists, it represents the moral blindness at recognizing that one has committed great evil and is being justly punished for it. The belief that our pride is unconquerable encourages us to resist the call to repentance as a sign of weakness rather than as the only way out of the bind that our violence has gotten us in. Ultimately, we are responsible for the state of our soul, but if we are captains of our fate, it is like being the captain of a small and tempest-tossed vessel on a mighty sea whose billows can all too easily overtake us.

When I moved back from Thailand to the United States, within a few months I found myself working at UPS [2]. I had not driven for about two and a half years by this time, since living in Florida, and was unfamiliar with the Portland area, the small towns, suburbs, and rural areas of Clackamas and Yamhill and Washington and Marion counties where the US routes I optimized happened to be. So, although I find driving to be immensely stressful, I thought it would be a good way to get to know the area, and in that it was very successful even if a trial to my nerves. Aside from the time we spent in the office looking at the trucks whose routes we would be following and in mapping and optimizing the routes, half of the time I spent as a navigator and half of the time I spent as a driver following the directions of others, which must have been quite terrifying as we drove around in all kinds of unfamiliar territory and found out that the roads on our maps were sometimes one way, sometimes blocked by obstacles invisible on satellite, and sometimes full of all kinds of perils of traffic and even perils of the occasional wild animal who happened to insert themselves into our path.

Those who have found themselves as a passenger in a car that I am driving can often attest to the fact that I find driving to be immensely stressful. At times I have driven chatty teens between volleyball practice and other sites, which is pretty stressful on its own. At other times I have found the cramped driving and assertive behavior of pedestrians and cyclists as adding stress to crowded urban streets with their proliferation of one-way and turn only lanes, while at still other times I have found myself feeling like a trapped animal in the face of the barrage of unmoving and ironically-named rush hour traffic. If I, as the driver of my own midsize vehicle, am the master of my fate, fate has often conspired to keep me from traveling with the speed I would prefer. Even on peaceful and pleasant drives, the general stress of life has frayed my nerves and made it impossible to enjoy even some drives in the best of circumstances, simply because the situation is too tense and stressful.

One might think that being a passenger would be less stressful, but this is not the case either [3]. Whether it is riding on public transportation with sketchy company, or being a passenger in cars by drivers who are trying to show off their drag racing skills, including in foggy conditions where visibility is nil, being a passenger means having no control over potentially lethal situations. The solution is clearly not abdicating one’s responsibility and freedom, since being free to read peacefully while one’s neighbors are fare jumping or arguing about how a partner reminds someone of their her father because of their shared opposition to her exotic dancing, to take an example not at random, before one scampers off the bus or train towards home and hopes one is not robbed on the way, is not being free in any meaningful sense. The stress is not in the driving, but rather in the crowd of people and in the feeling that one is trapped around people one cannot communicate with whose interests are inimical to one’s own. It is the absence of fellow feeling, of belonging, that is the critical problem, and one that is not easy at all to solve.

Yet this section deals with driving again. It does not require an absence of fear or anxiety in driving, in seeking to live the best life possible. Such would scarcely be possible for some of us. It does not mean that in driving we are in full control of the circumstances of life, or even that what we want most for ourselves is easy to achieve. Yet if one wanted what was easy to achieve, one would not take a job that required technical skill in GIS as well as driving in unfamiliar areas. No one should ever say that I take it easy on myself. What driving again means is that one takes the fear and anxiety, recognizing it honestly and openly, and strives to overcome it, that one is not easy on oneself because what one wants to achieve is difficult, but also that one puts oneself in a position to succeed. Perhaps it may best be considered like being a professional race car driver—his (or her) nerves are necessary to succeed, but it is not merely an individual effort, as there is a skilled pit crew and mechanics and other support staff that allow the driver to drive and outsource some of those stressful duties to other people like changing tires and refueling a vehicle. That is what we do in Oregon, after all, outsourcing our fueling, which makes driving at least a little more enjoyable and surprisingly does not add to its direct cost to the driver. In driving again, we are not driving solo, but rather as part of a team for collaborative goals.

Perhaps looking at driving in this respect makes it less stressful. Just like a drive is a lot more comfortable when one has someone to talk to, assuming that person is not a backseat or passenger seat driver, at least, and just like driving that would be overwhelmingly stressful, like being an IndyCar or Nascar driver, is made bearable by being part of cooperative racing teams, so too the stress of life that encourages a fallacious belief in late Victorian self-mastery (while simultaneously believing in biological determinism, oddly enough) is made bearable when one realizes one is a part of a larger team. The sooner one realizes that, and one’s teammates realize that just as you are support characters in encouraging them, they are support characters for you in your own efforts, the sooner the stresses of life can become more manageable because they are shared. In this light, therefore, when discussing future goals and plans, some of which are just beginning, some of which have been underway for a while, and some of which are yet to be achieved in any way, it will be helpful to realize that this is not a matter of individual effort alone, but rather about the thorny problem of finding one’s place in a larger context, and in putting one’s experiences and one’s passion in the service of the good of others.

It helps, at least in closing, to comment at least a little bit as to why I write about such matters as my embarrassing habit of listening in to the conversations around me and about the stresses of life that other people tend to find likely far less stressful than I do. Perhaps a great deal of what I find intensely stressful might be fun to others, but at least part of what has made life such a challenge, and often such a thankless chore, is that most of what I find fun tends to be the social context of a given activity that is enjoyable, and not so much the activity myself. I find reading fun because it is hearing a voice (or a collection of voices) in an intellectual conversation. I enjoy good fellowship over good food, singing in choirs, being a part of team sports when I have at least some competence in the sport in question, even though there are often very stressful aspects of these activities as well. And though I do not seek anyone’s pity, nor do I think such serious anxiety and stress as I feel continually is easy to solve or likely to lead to a long life, I feel it necessary to be honest about what I face, not least because I wish to encourage anyone else who reads this to remember that they are not alone, no matter how lonely the struggle may feel sometimes. Someday we may be able to make it so that the road is not so lonely, and that we will not always be so isolated in our lives, hurtling along the same paths as so many others, yet without any fellow-feeling with our anonymous neighbors. What fun is it, after all, to cut through the darkest night alone with our two headlights? Is it not a lot more fun to be a part of a team or a convoy?


[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Naming Our Abuse: Driving Again

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The Naming Our Abuse Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: A Family Reunion | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: A Broader Perspective | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: The Pilgrim’s Regress | Edge Induced Cohesion

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