So there I was, driving east down I-40 in Arizona with a song in my heart and someone’s headlights in my rearview mirror. It was way past sunset; the headlights were the biggest thing in my visual environment. I was happy at the 75-mph speed limit – using an acceptable amount of that increasingly expensive gasoline – and had no interest in going faster, so my hope was that Mr. or Ms. Headlights would go ahead and pass me already. The headlights slowly – very slowly – migrated from the inside rearview mirror to the driver’s-side mirror outside the window. And by that point I realized: this was a driver who had found his life’s calling (it turned out to be a he. Pa and Ma were out for a trip somewhere). He was going to hang out on my port quarter until a tornadic gust of wind, an earthquake, or the coming of the Apocalypse nudged his headlights past me and into the dark void ahead.
It seemed he wanted to go 76 miles an hour (and probably had the cruise control set to that speed). This stretch of I-40 is conducive to such exact, finicking driving principles. On busier stretches of highway there is no settling in at a carefully calibrated speed. There is only accepting life behind the 18-wheelers and the towering RVs and U-Haul vans, or going whatever speed you have to, to get past all the endless clumps of low-attention drivers. But on I-40 in eastern Arizona, in the pitch dark of a December night, there are few other vehicles on the road. Drivers have greater latitude to exhibit character traits. There are more possible settings than “terrified and shaking at 55 mph” and “ranging with alert determination between 65 and 85.”
One of those settings is “I’ll pass this car when I pass it but I’m not speeding up. Not even by 2-3 mph.” I have to admit, that setting is alien to me. When driving under these (or most other) conditions, I prefer to pass expeditiously, speeding up if I have to, and then settle back to my base speed. When there is a little more traffic, you box another driver in by taking a long time to pass him. You may force him to brake behind a slower vehicle, which frankly is just rude. If you’re passing, get on past the vehicles in the right lane. And if you’re just in the left lane because you feel like being there for a while, well, get out of it, drop your speed as necessary to stay out of it, and enjoy life. It’s better and safer for everyone.
This was not Mr. Headlights’ philosophy, however. He was fully prepared to take a very long time to pass whatever vehicle was in the right lane. He simply stayed in the left lane, positioned precisely to create the biggest possible headlight glare in my driver’s-side mirror, as his front end inched closer to my left rear bumper. This was not a matter of minutes. It was a matter of tens of minutes – and several slower drivers. As each set of rear lights hove into view in front of me, I waited to see if Mr. Headlights would have any luck passing me before I’d have to slow down. When he couldn’t manage it, I pulled out into the left lane in front of him to pass the slower driver. This happened four times before Headlights finally managed to pull up beside me on the left.
At this point, reader, you will have discerned that I could have made other choices. I could have sped up for a while and pulled away from Mr. Headlights. I could have slowed to 70 for a bit and let him get a good distance ahead of me. But I didn’t. Both of us drivers wanted to go about the same speed; we just had significantly different approaches to driving. Mine made sense to me. I’m sure his makes sense to him. To me, it’s better to pay attention to the effect your mode of operation is having on other drivers, and adjust as you go along to minimize annoyance for all.
That, at least, is what I perceive to be happening. I never mind when someone passes me if he goes ahead and gets the job done. Some drivers are extremely irritated by others who go very fast; I tend to think only that this is one driver I’ll never have to see again, unless it’s by the side of the road with a highway patrolman behind him. That’s fine by me. Between someone who parks himself on my port quarter for 45 minutes and someone who gets past me in seconds going 90 and disappears from my life forever, I’ll take the latter every time. Most drivers fall somewhere between these extremes anyway.
Mr. Headlights eventually managed to get around me and pull into the right lane. His rear lights weren’t getting further from me, but they weren’t getting closer either, so that was good. I had leisure to observe two white heads peeping above the front-seat headrests, illuminated by my headlights which now shone brightly in Mr. Headlights’ car. I would have found the brightness irritating enough to speed up and distance myself from, but that was not the Headlight Way. Headlights was going to go 76, no matter what.
The story isn’t over, but it’s time to pause and ask rhetorically, Isn’t driving a metaphor for life? It neatly reflects personalities and captures many principles of human relations. We all make rules for ourselves – and usually they are codicils to what we believe are universal principles. But we don’t all make the same rules. The ones we make are dependent on personality type.
I can’t imagine making it a rule to maintain one speed and one speed only, regardless of the effect that has on me and everyone else. Mr. Headlights probably can’t imagine seeing things the way I do, with speed as a rule of thumb and a thinking aid – a base state to deviate from – and conditions being paramount in each driving situation as it emerges. I don’t mind applying fresh thought to each new situation, mainly because that’s what I naturally do. I really can’t imagine driving on autopilot; continuous analysis of new developments isn’t a burden, it’s what I’m alive for. I suspect Mr. Headlights’ instincts and reflexive priorities go in a different direction.
Over time, however, one comes to understand that we all have different personalities for a reason. The world wouldn’t operate very well if everyone were like me, just as it wouldn’t if everyone were like Mr. Headlights. Some people are natural bureaucrats; some feel like they’re dying inside if they are constrained by rules that often seem silly and counterproductive. These types rub against each other, but they can be useful counterweights to each other as well. Each person has merit and a good purpose, even though his or her personality is not a universal standard to which everyone “ought” to adhere. And the truth is, how we deal with each other is dictated by attitudes of mind and heart that are accessible to us all: goodwill, kindness, and a positive approach are things we can all adopt, whereas the personalities of others are not.
Nor should they be. Contrary to the twentieth-century’s social-homogenization ideology, we are not all supposed to be trying to become the same person. We’re not all supposed to have one body type, one package of mental abilities, one philosophical focus, one kind of work, one level of income, one view of life and the universe. This concept has been encapsulated as the “Aryan type” and as “Soviet Man,” but it has also been retailed in a different way by the Western entertainment media, whose idea of what makes a “good,” noble, or sympathetic character – outside of a martial arts movie – is too often laughably limited and pat. We chuckle today, when in high school or college we learn about the medium of the medieval morality play, but the truth is that that’s what 98% of our video storytelling form boils down to.
It was partly from a determination to exhibit patience and goodwill that I maintained my speed around 75 – except for the emergency passing episodes – while Mr. Headlights struggled to pass me. Hey, I didn’t want to go any faster, and I didn’t care if he passed me: I just wished he’d get it over with. As he became comfortable in his new spot ahead of me, however, a pair of headlights behind me was getting perilously closer. The rate of its approach was, if anything, slower than that of Mr. Headlights. Inevitably, the new headlights established themselves in my driver’s-side mirror, and the glare was amplified with each centimeter of the car’s excruciatingly slow forward progress. It appeared that the newcomer was also determined to go 76 mph – or, indeed, 75.5 mph.
There was a long stretch in which our little clump encountered no slower drivers. But eventually I saw red lights on the dark horizon in front of us, and knew that my fear would be realized: I would be trapped by the 76-mph Club while it made an extended production of inching past the slower vehicles ahead. One Mr. Headlights I could deal with. Two were iron bars making a cage. It was time to invoke a different rule.
The second car had managed to get pretty close to me on the left, but there was still room to pull out in front of it; the maneuver was feasible, but a closer-run exploit than a drivers’ ed teacher would have advised. Nevertheless, it was the right thing to do. Feeling a little like Indiana Jones drawing his pistol on the scimitar-wielding Saracen, I pulled out into the left lane, ahead of the second car, and kicked it up to about 85. Within a couple of minutes, the two sets of headlights were fading behind me. I saw the second car pull in behind Mr. Headlights before the pair of them disappeared behind a hill under the starless, heavily-clouded night sky. I maintained 80+ for about 30 minutes before settling back to 75. As far as I know, I never saw either of them again.
Some of you, readers, may have the personality type that would have simply done this at the outset. Others may think it’s a case of deliberately annoying yourself, to analyze and anticipate these situations and try to make them come out in some perfect way. Hey, just take it as it comes. Still others are proud of the 76-mph Club for not compromising its principles. And some will instinctively understand exactly which thoughts were passing through my mind, and the preference for not acting with irritation and haste while yet being watchful for an unacceptable deterioration in the conditions.
And all of that is OK. Even when we have decided to proceed at the same base speed – a metaphor for many aspects of life – we are still different people who approach the project differently. Indeed, “going 75” is not even the same project for everyone – much less choosing to go 85, 65, or 50. (Most of us at some point get over the urge to go 95, both literally and figuratively.) By defining the terms differently, and setting our personal rules, we produce different outcomes from the project of “going 75.” But it’s worth reflecting that if we all get to our chosen destinations, in good spirits and with our body parts and possessions altered mainly by the natural effects of aging, we really – really – don’t need to keep looking sideways and trying to adjust other people’s approaches, or imposing our rules on them.
That is exactly what prophylactic government does, however: try to homogenize all human projects, large and small, and criminalize or punish all but one way of “going 75.” We aren’t meant to live that way. The cost of writing our pet peeves into law – particularly into federal law – is too high. No one’s personal rules are one-size-fits-all, and no good outcome is ever induced by criminalizing every path but one. Writing law as if these concepts are valid is extremely destructive. It’s on us, in our generation, to internalize that truth, and to act with a wisdom even our greatest forebears did not universally possess.