Finding a new way to share the road

I recently returned from two weeks in Ireland, including a week spent driving on a lot of country roads. Toward the end of the trip, I was reading Rick Steves’ advice on driving in Ireland. One has to remember, he said, that there’s no “my side” and “your side” on the narrow, twisting roads, there’s just “the road”. 

What a metaphor for a lot of life’s encounters! We spend so much time jockeying for position, trying to gain the upper hand in work, in relationships, and yes, while driving, when we might benefit from remembering that we’re all in this together. Being flexible, knowing when to give and take, even yielding to someone else is often the wiser course of action. 

Just as there’s an inherent conflict in two cars driving in opposite directions on a road that’s only wide enough for one or one and a half, many of life’s struggles often appear impossible to resolve in a win-win sort of way. But sharing the metaphorical road doesn’t mean giving up (although I do admit to just pulling off the road in Ireland at times). It means learning how to approach, rather avoid or attack. 3-Co. Kerry-Gallarus hike (1)

There’s a conflict resolution model called the Thomas-Kilman Mode Instrument that describes five different styles commonly used by people, depending on the situation and on their personalities. They range from avoidance to collaboration, with accommodating, competing and compromising falling in between. While not everyone may use all the styles, they each have appropriate uses, depending on timing and what’s at stake. The two styles that I find most comparable to driving in Ireland are Accommodating and Compromising. 

Accommodating means that you sacrifice your own needs for someone else’s (thereby not being assertive). It is agreeable, friendly and yielding, but also cooperative; and appropriate in these instances:

  • When the conflict is about something that’s not very important to you, but it is important to the other person.
  • When it is necessary, and worth it, in order to maintain the relationship
  • When you turn out to be wrong about the situation
  • When damage would occur if you continued to compete, and you know you can’t win [think Bernie Sanders]. 

The Compromising style falls somewhere between being assertive and being cooperative. Using this style means that you try to find a middle ground where each person gets some of what they want. It is most useful: 

  • When you attach a certain amount of importance to your goals, but not so much that you want to assert yourself fully.
  • When people “of equal status are equally committed”. [Think 2 cars passing on the road.]
  • As a temporary measure in a complicated situation until some better solution is reached.
  • When you need to get resolution quickly in an important situation. 

As we drive through life, we’re often avoiding the narrow roads (being unassertive and uncooperative) or competing to take up the whole road (being aggressive and uncooperative), when we might “gain” more by using the accommodating or compromising styles. Ultimately, the gain comes in reduced stress and more time spent feeling relaxed and enjoying the view. What’s more important? 

Here’s what I learned on my vacation: It’s okay to yield, even to be soft sometimes; not everything has to be a fight to the finish. As Wayne Dyer has said, “Conflict cannot survive without your participation.”

 

Taking the slow road on Earth Day

Okay, I know it’s a bit of an oxymoron — driving on Earth Day. But if we assume the drive is necessary, can it be a mindful celebration of nature?

Driving into the city, I have a choice: Take the busy highway and then the congested main street, or make the journey on the slower parkway that meanders along the water, but gets me to the same destination. Today the road less traveled is clearly the better choice.

It’s mid-afternoon with a light rain falling. The road twists and turns, following nature’s path, not mine. Suddenly I am fully awake to my experience. This is not the time for rote driving; rather, the road grabs my attention and demands that I give it its due.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that any time we use an instrument or a machine, we change. We become something else that is a blend of self and machine. He suggests reciting this verse before driving, to make the experience more mindful:

Before starting the car,

I know where I’m going.

The car and I are one.

If the car goes fast, I go fast.

imageI settle into a steady rhythm as I respond to the organic curves in the road. There are stretches where I can go faster, but being forced to take my time around the curves makes keeping a slower, steady pace more fluid. On the main roads, I would have been speeding up just to stop. Here on the parkway, pauses are fewer, the motion is smoother, and I feel calmer as I drive.

I notice places in the creek where trees have fallen and boulders have piled up, chaotic spots that are reminders of wild winter weather. At the same time, Spring is announcing itself with a full-on burst of color. The bright yellow-green of new growth and the intense magenta of redbud trees flash around every turn. I realize what a gift it is to have this way of coming home.

Thoreau wrote that, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” During the thirty minutes I’ve spent on the parkway, it’s been impossible to think about work or worries for very long. Nature has taken over my attention, if only for a little while.

Celebrating Earth Day by driving might not be what environmentalists had in mind when they inaugurated the occasion back in 1970. But before we can care for the environment, we have to notice it, and a mindful Earth Day drive has a way of stirring close observation and appreciation for all that surrounds us.