Stumbling Over My Own Self-Righteousness

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road rage

Ever wonder whether the only person your sense of right and wrong is hurting is you?

Here’s the scenario. I’m driving through my neighborhood and I come up to a stop sign. Now, we don’t just have regular old stop signs, we have speed-bump stop signs. So, you really have to stop. Or risk losing your shocks.

But the bump only goes half way across the road. So, if you really wanted to blow off the stop sign and the speed bump, you could, theoretically, swerve out into the oncoming lane, go around the speed bump and blow through the stop sign.

Seems like a lot of work to me to break the law.

But, not to the person in the car behind me. As I pulled up to the stop sign, the guy behind me swerved out around me, around the speed bump, zipped through the stop sign and took off down the road.

Son of a…

Who the hell was he to not only cut in front of me, but break the law?! I was instantly peeved (missed my morning meditation that day), so I did what every red-blooded, self-righteous New Yorker does…

I gave chase.

At least for about a block when reality sank in and I started to laugh and wonder what the hell I was doing. Yes, the guy broke the law. Yes, he went in front of me. But, no, I am NOT the cops. And, no, his actions did not in any impede my progress or take anything from me that I was entitled to. Whether he sped around me or not, I was committed to the speed-bump stop sign.

So, beyond just being stupid (what was I gonna do if I actually caught up with the guy? Give him the finger and run for my life?!), getting my dander up and giving chase was only hurting me. It was mental and emotional energy spent on someone I didn’t know and didn’t care about.

And, it was time and energy invested on a situation that had no direct negative impact on me, beyond my decision to allow my sense of self-righteousness to get the best of me.

It took me a block to realize this and consciously choose to let it go.

But, it made me wonder how much of any given day we devote to judging or condemning people for choices and actions that have real no impact on us, just because we can. I wonder how much more time we might have to enjoy life, if we cultivated a regular practice of stepping back and asking what we’re really so pissed off about.

I wonder what might happen if made a conscious effort to stop rolling through the day as judge and jury and, instead, devoted that very same energy to enjoying the gifts that are presented at any given moment.

These are the things I wonder about. And, increasingly, try to act upon.

What about you?

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32 responses

32 responses to “Stumbling Over My Own Self-Righteousness”

  1. […] Go to the author’s original blog: Stumbling Over My Own Self-Righteousness […]

  2. Peter Blue says:

    Jonathan;

    it happens to me again and again. Something happens that’s not my business, but I waste energy by commenting it, thinking about it, reacting. It is said that those things that can make you act like this are actually disowned parts of your personality. So it’s always a reminder to look within and investigate.
    And in case you miss your morning meditation again, there is help. My morning tune up vids are updated daily now. Little pieces of uncensored improvised music to greet the new day: http://sexyguitar.blogspot.com/2008/06/morning-tune-up-7.html

    All the best;

    Peter

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Peter – Yeah, I think we all do it all the time, meditation really does help create overall balance, though. Thanks for the link!

  4. “…devoted that very same energy to enjoying the gifts that are presented at any given moment.”

    So true. One of the keys to living a happy, joyous and peaceful life. Always great to have a reminder – especially when my attention can be elsewhere.

  5. The story reminded me of more than one Seinfeld episode, which always makes the day a little brighter 🙂

  6. Plozano76 says:

    “It was mental and emotional energy spent on someone I didn’t know and didn’t care about.”

    What if the person is someone you do know and care about? What if they were affecting other people’s lives by their actions? (somebody could’ve been crossing the street at that stop sign).

    You’re absolutely right in saying we shouldn’t judge people whose actions have no impact on us. But breaking laws deteriorates the already fragile collective consciousness of this society. I guess giving the guy the finger isn’t going to fix anything,but if you had the opportunity to share with the guy how his law-breaking habits were hurting society, would you?

    I guess your post struck a cord with me based on the post I wrote yesterday. The choices of a person I know and care about have been bugging me, but your words reminded me that I can only do my part to make this world a better place, and bitching won’t make any changes come about. So, thanks. 🙂

  7. Lisa Newton says:

    If the same situation had happened to me, I would have just yelled at the guy, “You A..hole!!”, which, of course, he couldn’t hear, and gone my merry way. There are too many stupid people who do stupid things to take much notice of it or give it too much credence.

    Instead of putting my energy into judging them, I try very hard not to be like them.

    I hope you found time to do your mediation later in the day…………..:)

  8. Things like that used to drive me crazy and would ruin my day. I’ve learned to just let it go unless the action puts me in danger. I do get upset when cars turn in front of me when I’m crossing the street – things like that – especially when I am with my daughter. But I don’t go chasing them down the street or give them the finger or anything 🙂

    The story reminder me a little of the Aamco Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.

  9. Oh my. Wow. Gave chase, huh. Not that I have ever done that, no siree. Uh-uh. Never. All the rumors are false.

    However. If, allegedly, I HAD done that it wouldn’t have been from a place of pissed-offedness. No, siree.

    If, in the OJ Simpson sense, I ‘did it’ – I would have cheerfully followed them just enough to make it clear I was following them. People act like that because they don’t think their actions have any repercussions. Once they realize they have a comet tail, the very person they cut off earlier, their driving tends to calm down considerably.

    Like a non-violent, non-retaliatory reality check.

    Like I said, IF, I did that!

  10. Tim Brownson says:

    I used to do stuff like that all the time. Then one day I was in London and my dad had a stroke. I had to follow an ambulance through rush hour traffic having no clue where the hospital was.

    I got some serious abuse, but my guess is that if the people had known what the score was, there would have been a parting of the waves.

    Since then my attitude has changed somewhat.

  11. Lance says:

    Great point to ponder…

    I read somewhere that we really never know what it is that is causing this other person to do what they are doing. Maybe a loved one was injured. Maybe they just got fired from their job. A marriage gone bad. We should just let it go.

    I liked this (now, if I can just do that!). Maybe by “turning the other cheek” we can help to make someone elses day better.

  12. Cheryl says:

    I’m guilty of allowing myself to get upset about these sort of things as well. May too often, actually. However, being a 5′-0″ woman, I don’t usually give chase (LOL), but I do things I regret later. Of late, I’ve been trying to immediately redirect myself into more positive actions, such as, waving people in when they are trying to merge into my lane or waiting so someone can make a turn. It’s a work in progress, for sure, but it does seem to change my mood faster than anything else I’ve tried so far.

  13. Robyn says:

    I did confront someone one day because she happened to pull into the same parking lot. Without anger, I pointed out that what she had done by swerving around me in a no-passing zone was both illegal and dangerous. She screamed a tirade of abuse and threatened to call the cops and tell them I was stalking her and have me arrested for road rage. My response was to calmly say that what she had done was wrong and she knew it. She was very stressed out and I now feel that it was wrong to approach her. She did know she was wrong, which is what made her react so angrily. Though the situation didn’t escalate, it ruined my morning and I remember it now when most other such incidents are gone. Still, I hate to think that, had I said nothing, she might repeat the behaviour some day and injure herself or someone else. Maybe by saying something to her, she remembers the incident as much as I, or maybe she has buried it because it was humiliating. In the end I agree that if one can let such slights go unpunished and unremarked, one should.

  14. CSI Seattle says:

    I agree that we should not allow the actions of a few rule breakers to ruin our day, but I have often felt that our frustrations stem from more than the single incident.

    We are confined to laws and rules that make us a civilized society. I would love to drive fast (I mean fast..) but choose not too because in doing so, I could risk the safety of others. When someone blatantly breaks the rules, I feel as if they are saying, “I do not conform to your rules, and I will do what I want regardless of the risk and consequences to others.” That is statement much more powerful than “I choose to disregard this stop sign”.

    I recently blogged about the bad behavior of a few dog owners. This included a woman who brought her dog into a restaurant and argued with the manager about it. Another incident involved two dog owners who brought their dogs into a hardware store and the dogs go into a knock-out fight. Again, the rules are clear, but the individuals believe they are above the rules and therefore the rest of us.

    However, I still take the safe route when dealing with people like this. Other than a physical confrontation, there isn’t much authority we have over people we do not know. I don’t recommend a physical confrontation for anyone.

    Be calm, be successful, and set the example for others,

    Brian

  15. OMG, Jonathan, I, too have caught myself wasting precious time and energy not only judging someone I thought was wrong, but also dreaming up evil ways I could punish, embarrass or confront him or her.

    Thankfully, I’ve been able to catch myself before doing any damage. Why do educated and intelligent people like us put ourselves through this? It’s got to be that human primitive side of us that emerges whenever it can.

    Our reactions in situations like what you’ve described are a reflection of us than anything about the perpetrator. I like one of my girlfriend’s reaction when I ask her about things that are not really our business–DKDC: Don’t know, don’t care.

  16. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Everyone – great discussion as always, good to know we’re all so darn PERFECT!

    A couple of people brought up an interesting sub-issue, which is, how do decide whether the behavior that raised your cackles (always wanted to say that) was something that triggers some moral imperative to intervene versus something that is better left behind?

    What do you guys think? Is there a litmus test? Does it change with geography? If my story unfolded in a small town in the mid-west, would that be different than a busy neighborhood in Da’ Bronx?!

    Thoughts?

  17. Plozano76 says:

    The deciding factor could be whether the person’s actions have the potential of placing others in danger (my boyfriend’s brother was killed by a driver who did exactly what the guy you’re referring to did).

  18. Not worth it. Too many carzies out there.

    One of my best friends is a highly esteemed and educated paychologist and is a maniac behing the wheel. She is a major confronter of people who offend her.

    I don’t live in the best area of Chicago. People have guns here.

    I tell her,
    “Read the paper, dummy!”

    i now insist on being the driver. And encourage her to keep the finger down.

    She’s better.

    It is a sad commentary. Bu if you live in an urban community, it is better to be safe than have a “ten minute feel good” moment.

  19. Lisa Newton says:

    I was born in a small town, but now reside in the big city. I don’t think my feelings would have changed. Life’s too short to sweat the small stuff. As several others have pointed out, unless harm or danger is a pending result, I probably wouldn’t take action.

    Now, if when residing in the small town, and I saw the same person do the same thing more than once, then action would be warranted. Even though harm didn’t come this time, it is still reckless behavior, and some one could be hurt as a result.

  20. vimoh says:

    Great post Jonathan!

    I realised some time ago, that every wrong I see in others is a reflection of a wrong within me. That makes it easier to see others as an extension of me and people become easier to forgive.

    I wrote about this some time ago here:
    http://www.mypajama.com/blog/posts/losing-my-rights/

    Thanks for this!

  21. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ vimoh – It’s an interesting point, to look deeper into your real motivation for allowing anger and self-righteousness to rise up. Are we really reacting to a “reminder” of something we feel the need to chance within ourselves.

    A second thought occurred to me, too, which is that I automatically assumed I knew what was motivating the guy to break the law and cut in front of me. And, there’s a decent chance I was right.

    But, how do I know for sure. Maybe, he’d just gotten a call about a loved one who was in danger or sick. Maybe, he’d just left a tramatic event and was desperate to get somewhere. And, here I am judging and condemning the guy when, had I known and understood the “reason” for his behavior, I may very well have championed.

    I guess the bigger message is, I was not standing in his shoes, I don’t know the potential pain that motivated his actions. And, even if I did, who am I to judge?

    Thoughts???

  22. vimoh says:

    That is a wise way of looking at this.

    But, how do I know for sure.

    We will never know. So instead of jumping to the wrong side, why not give people the benefit of doubt?

    I was once angry at a cabbie for swindling me. I was new in town. And I came to know I had been charged five times the fare.

    I fumed for a while and then decided to believe that he was forced to resort to such means because he had someone sick at home and had to raise money for their treatment.

    Wishful thinking? Probably. But the thing about life is that we can believe anything we want and that becomes our reality. We just have to choose our version of reality. 🙂

  23. […] Leadership by Example    Stumbling Over My Own Self-Righteousness […]

  24. Mitch York says:

    Jonathan, I am reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, which addresses exactly what you are talking about. He actually gives the physiological explanation for it. I won’t repeat it here, but if you want to know why we sometimes act first and think later, a great explanation is in the book.

  25. Laurie says:

    I’ve been chased a couple of times and I wasn’t sure what I had done to tick ’em off. Oh well. If we try to take care of ourselves and let others take care of themselves I think we’d all be better off. I have been trying to adopt a mindset that when other do things that are upsetting to me or insulting ect. I think, “It’s not about me. They are acting that way because of stuff intheir life.” This helps me to let it go. I’m still learning.

  26. A few issues are weaved together in a single happening.

    First, what is ‘the police’?
    There were a bunch of guys who decided they were the boss and they made laws (in 17-hundred-something) and now you’re still subject to those laws and the bossness is passed on and ‘the police’ are regarded as some kind of default force in life that you have to obey. That’s the libertarian view. Another view could be that there is a force, protecting what is ‘right’. In one country that means they arrest thieves, in others that they hang gay men. Seems a bit arbitrary what ‘right’ is, then, but hey…

    All you did was be born and already you were confronted with a whole bunch of statuses quo and there ain’t much you can do about it. But to think you’re still answering to laws that were created by some dudes a couple of hundred of years ago has a weird ring to it- it has to me at least.

    But, okay, rules were made and you agreed to be a good citizen, and you know that if you’re not you’ll be knocked upside the head by the police. And here goes Johnnie in his car, breaks the rules and doesn’t get knocked upside the head by the police. Something’s wrong here. You respond. It is not fair.

    Also, by saying ‘I’m not the police’ you are giving away power. Of course, the fact is you’re not the police. But then again, the police are not the keeper of universal laws of right and wrong, either! There seem to be principles at work that go beyond the logic of humans. To think your response to behaviour that potentially puts other people in danger is self-righteous might be very disempowering, as it may be a higher force responding to the wrongdoings of this driver. I feel that we place our ‘point of locus’ outside ourselves too often, and that is why so many people get away with behaviour that harms the collective.

    I feel there is a weird kind of logic to the idea that if someone is on his way to a loved one in the hospital, or is a doctor, or whatever, it’s okay to act like a total jerk. As if you’re trading lives. “It’s okay to risk a life if a life is on the line.”
    “My mother is in the hospital and it’s going downhill fast. I will now drive my car to the hospital, driving like a maniac, so maybe I will create an accident, but that is okay because I am very emotional and this is very important.” And we go: “Yes, your dying mother is very important, jeapordize my life if you will. Or maybe run over a six year old riding her bicycle to school, we’ll tolerate your risk taking.”

    What I do in situations like this is observe the supreme reality is getting really pissed off at another driver and know that there are laws at work that are beyond us humans and that this person is creating karma for himself and that this takes care of itself.

  27. Laurie says:

    @ Annedien : I don’t believe that if the guy is going to the hospital excuses his driving madly but it makes it understandable. If someone molested your child it wouldn’t excuse that you took a bat and beat the molester to death but it is understandable.

    I think the deal here is to not take the behavior of others personally. If the guy cuts you off, while that is not the way to drive, I can know that the guy’s behavior is a result of things he is going through and not what I am doing. With that attitude I am better able to choose not to be offended and therefore still enjoy each moment in my day.

    I believe if you follow what is right and wrong back to its conception you will find that the core of it stems from God. People have then added their agendas to original commands which has distored things and included the redictulous. The universal force you speak of is God. You are right in that God lets us face natural consequences of our actions.

  28. Karen Swim says:

    Jonathan, great reminder to not allow the actions of others to derail our day. We’re human and we all occasionally fall prey to letting someone else control our mood by reacting to their negative behavior. The key as you pointed out is to realize it and then move on. I’m glad you didn’t catch up with the road rager. 🙂

  29. vimoh says:

    Long ago, in ancient India, a sage sat under a tree teaching his pupils.

    As he spoke, one of his pupils spotted a scorpion crawling towards the sage. He warned his teacher, who thanked him and picked up the scorpion and placed it some distance away.

    But the scorpion started crawling back towards the sage. “Let us kill it!” implored the pupils. But the sage shook his head and kept pushing the scorpion away.

    Eventually one pupil stood up and said, “Gurudev, why do you choose to let the scorpion live? It is venomous and vicious by nature.”

    The sage smiled and replied, “The scorpion acts according to its nature. I act according to mine.”

    @Annedien Human beings can choose the path they will take. An animal may probably not.

    We may choose to obey inhuman laws. We may choose to defy them. We may choose to exercise our rights by going after people who break laws. We may choose to exercise that very same power by ignoring him and putting our energy to better use.

    There is no right answer that applies to everyone. But there is one inside you and it applies to you alone.

  30. Helen South says:

    An interesting post, and some really thoughtful responses too. I know I’m often judgmental and at times it certainly has come back to bite me, hard! Sometimes I’m stunned by my own lack of compassion.

    I try to know better and do better, but I still trip up on a regular basis!

  31. I lived in Korea for two years, and anyone who has ever lived there knows that at times, there is no rhyme or reason or logic to driving there. Yet, the people do not suffer from road rage the way we do here. I found myself excusing the Korean people for what I normally would have been yelling out of my car for here in the states because they were not driving with any kind of malice. However, I have yet to get used to the driving here in California where courtesy has seemingly gone out of the window and road rage is the prevailing state while driving. When we first returned, I actually took it personally. But now that I have been back for almost a year, I learned to calm down and to be like you Jonathan and focus on what is going on with me and how I can improve the world in my own little way, rather than being sucked into the cycle of judgment and energy wasting that comes when I react to these situations.

  32. Some interesting views here. Comments make just as good reading as the article.

    Jonathan, I have to say I’m surprised you actually gave chase to an asshole in a car at all. Don’t you Americans have guns to go with your road rage?

    But you’re definitely right that it is a waste of our time and energy, as well as a drain on our happiness to get ourselves upset over the actions of others that we cannot control and haven’t really hurt us anyway.

    I’ve always tended to be a bit too honest and open – sometimes brutally so. And I prefer people to be upfront and not play head games, so I spent a lot of my 20s getting myself very righteous and upset about lots of things people said and did that I disagreed with. It was exhausting!

    Eventually I realised I couldn’t go on like that and have since adopted the question in moments like these:

    “Is this my business, and do I really need to get involved?”

    If the answer is no, and mostly it is (how many serious dramas do most of us have in a week?), then I just take a deep breath and let it slide.

    Most of what we worry about today won’t matter next week, let alone next year. I try to remember that.

    Kelly