Of Automobiles and Internets

Yesterday morning, we all went out to breakfast. We drove to a new place, and I sat by Ellis as she squirmed in the booth, playing with the salt and tasting the jelly before dumping orange juice on herself (she never uses straws at home, and is accustomed to tipping cups). I tried to teach her how to play tic-tac-toe, with very limited success: she kept circling the entire board. The meal itself, however, was ordinary, and I left remembering why we so seldom go out to eat: it is not the slow and unhurried conversation of our first years of marriage. It is distracting and entertaining and all you can do to stymie the hardwired inquisitiveness that is in a child. She wants to touch and taste and experiment with everything, and she should because she has not yet spent three years in this world, and it is full of wonders. Except when I am tired and the coffee is weak. Then, we all should sit still and talk about mildly amusing things.

On the way home, we stopped by the ATM. We had cash and checks to deposit, and the machine kept spitting back the checks to me, saying that one was unreadable. It was a process of elimination, until I could get all the checks deposited save one. Of course, the person in the car behind me revved his (her?) engine a couple times to remind me that I was taking too long.

For some reason, I picture a man when I imagine someone revving his engine out of impatience. It seems a more macho thing to do. Perhaps, and I am stereotyping here, a woman would honk. It conveys less testosterone. At least, if it were in a novel that’s what would happen. Maybe that’s why it does in real life. I suppose it depends on whether you think certain conventions are innate, or set upon us by society.

Nonetheless (and forgive my meanderings), I’ve thought of that man revving his engine behind me, unable to wait five minutes while I cajoled and urged the ATM. I thought about that man as we drove home, and then later after an afternoon of watching football. I thought of him again after Brooke cut my hair last night, mainly because of how similar I am to that man. I grow impatient when forced to wait, alone in my car, or when someone cuts me off or somehow seems to slight my perceived rights. Especially behind the wheel, I forget that driving is not a solitary activity but a communal one, and I obey laws and wait at stop lights and get stuck in traffic exactly because of that: I am surrounded by others who are trying to get somewhere, who will soon be home with spouses or children or brothers or sisters, people with desires and fears who are living stories. Instead, separated by glass and steel, I think I am alone and everyone else is in my way. I am the center of my drive, of my story, and everyone else is a faceless automobile either limiting me or helping me along.

This, of course, is the danger of technology: of automobiles and internets.

But it would not be a danger if I didn’t live the rest of my life this way, if I didn’t live the rest of my life like it was a great play and I was the main character, and everyone else is judged by how they relate to me: how they help or hinder me. Most of us, when we are honest, are solipsists. We can call it a sin nature or brokenness, but the world at least revolves around us, even if we haven’t totally formed it. Ellis made my breakfast a bit inconvenient because she did not sit still, even though that is not in her nature at almost three years old, and then I inconvenienced the man behind me because I did not go quickly enough at the ATM.

But what if I were living another story, a story of wonder at the world like my daughter does, of getting caught up in the saltiness of salt or the sweetness of jelly, of looking at the wondrous world with fresh eyes, always reminded that there is something behind it, and even if you assert that we are mere collections of random forces and accidental molecules, than that, too, is a humbling thought. Either way, it is enough to realize that my story is not the most important one, whether I ascribe to God’s story or the story of random molecules that somehow are propelling life forward; stories are about us, you and me and the person revving his engine and the child licking the salt shaker. Stories are about how we respond to the other characters, well or ill; how we love. All the great stories are incomplete without love, and love requires at least two people. It requires sacrifice. It requires a decentering: we are no longer the sole protagonists. True love makes someone else the protagonist.

So may it be with our stories. May we wonder at the world, at the pink sunrise this morning or black mountains this afternoon, or at the wonder of another person whose thoughts and hopes and fears can never be expressed in totality. May we remember that our stories are not the only ones being told, which is both decentering and empowering: we can alter another’s story, for good or ill–for good if we are listening and watching, and careful not to act without love.

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