I’m on Highway 5 outside of Olympia when it happens.
The drive from Seattle to Portland is about four hours, so I’m settled in for a long day. Traffic is light and I’m in the left lane. I’m listening to music, the sky is blue, and I’m thinking about how much I love the Pacific Northwest.
I notice a red minivan in my rearview, approaching fast. I’m already going 75 and don’t feel like speeding, so I move to the right lane before it gets to me. I think about my Canadian wife and how many road trips we’ve spent talking about highway lane etiquette. She’d be proud of me, I think.
As the van speeds by me on the left, I glance over and this is what I see: a white kid, probably in his twenties, with a number one buzzcut. His right arm is outstretched, flying in the wind, with his middle finger raised. Our eyes meet and I can see his mouth make the words in slow motion: “fuuuck youuu.”
Before I even realize what’s happening, the adrenaline spike hits and time slows to a crawl. The little demon who lives in the back of my brain pipes up.
You didn’t move over quickly enough.
No, I totally did. They didn’t even have to slow down.
They hate Jews and they know you’re Jewish.
Wait, how would they know that? It’s not like I have a mezuzah on my tailgate.
You shouldn’t have put those bumper stickers on the truck.
The Adventure Time stickers? Who hates BMO?
Flash your lights! Speed after them! What are you, a pussy?
What would that accomplish? They could be armed. Also, buddy, we don’t use that word anymore. We need to talk about that later.
Fine, baby. You know this is all your fault.
I know. Wait, is it?
All of this flashes through my brain in an instant as I watch the van speeding off. But then something funny happens. They get to the next car, the one in the right lane ahead of me, and out comes the hand again, bird defiantly flipping.
Then the next car, and then the next. Birds all the way down the highway.
And it hits me. They’re just two punks in their mom’s minivan driving Highway 5 to flip the world off. They don’t hate me, or the people in the car ahead of me, or the people in the car ahead of them. They hate the world, or themselves, or some combination. This is their way of fighting back, or lashing out, or having fun, or just trying to escape whatever shit they’re in today.
And I realize, I’ve been that kid. I had a buzzcut like that in my 20s. I never flipped off random strangers, but I did wave at them. I sometimes blew kisses at people who tailgated me in my slow-ass VW Bug. I used Highway 5 as an ashtray during a summer drought. I said “fuck you” to the world in my own way.
It’s not about me. I’m just a guy, driving home, on the receiving end of a random act of aggression. Because the world is pretty complicated right now. Because some people are just looking for trouble. Because hard times make hard people.
And here’s where I bring it back to online behavior (because that’s what I do). The next time someone is a jerk to you online, especially on a place like Twitter that’s optimized for aggression, take a moment to think about them as that sad, angry kid in the minivan. Consider that maybe it has nothing to do with you. You just happened to be closest at the moment they needed to lash out for some reason. The intentions of the person who flipped you off should matter as little to you as your feelings mean to them.
Does thinking like this make it better? Hell no. Your heart will still beat faster. And your first instinct will be to fight back, or beat yourself up, or something else just as unhealthy.
But for me, remembering that it’s not about me helps. If it’s not personal, it’s easier to see reality for what it is. It’s easier to ignore the demon in the back of my head. And it’s easier to just look at those idiots out there trying to ruin your day and do what I should have done when I got flipped off on Highway 5: laugh.