A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker
"WE ARE CIVILIZED!"
I donít get it. I mean, I was just driving along, enjoying the peace and calm of a summer afternoon. When I glanced in the mirror and saw that teenage girl in the red sedan waving at me, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to smile and wave back.
Then I saw the look on her face. My wave didnít please her. In fact, it seemed to infuriate her. She started waving at me again. With both hands.
Only now I could see that she wasnít waving, exactly. She was just sort of... you know... gesturing. Like she was saying "Weíre number one!"
Viciously. And not with her index finger, if you know what I mean.
Oh, and by the way, her fingernails were painted red.
I was puzzled. I know Iím not the best driver in the world, but I couldnít for the life of me remember doing anything that would incite such rage in a fellow motorist. As far as I could recall, I hadnít even changed lanes or speeds for several miles, let alone performed an act of highway impudence so impressive as to warrant a two-fisted salute. So to speak.
So I smiled and waved back. Again. With both hands.
This really seemed to outrage the girl and her passengers. She roared into the left turn lane and sped around me. As she raced past, a torrent of profanity and gesturing was unleashed in my direction from all four girls in the car. I tried to ignore it, although a couple of their more creative oaths did catch my attention. And yes, they were all wearing red fingernail polish.
But I couldnít help noticing what was going on in the car as the girls waited ahead of me in the left turn lane. They were bouncing around in the car, laughing and giving each other high fives Ė like theyíd just won the Finger-Flipping, Profanity-Shouting Championship of the World. They were genuinely pleased with themselves, and became nearly delirious with excitement when they saw that my lane was moving before their lane. That meant that they would get another shot at me, which they gleefully took with great venom Ė and great joy.
And thatís the part I donít understand. Iím willing to assume that I made a driving error that attracted her indignation. I can understand being angry with a driver who does something stupid on the road. Believe me, Iíve dubbed a few "idiots" and "jerks" in my life behind the wheel. But anger has always made me feel miserable and . . . well . . . angry. I donít understand the exhilaration of hostility or the joy of anger.
Driving home after my encounter with the Red-Nailed Finger Flippers, a line from "Camelot" kept popping into my mind. When King Arthur finally admits to himself that his wife and his most trusted friend are having an affair, his first reaction is anger. He rages that he will exact "a manís vengeance" on both Guenevere and Lancelot. But he finds no joy in his anger or in venting his wrath. Instead, he regains control of himself, reasoning that it couldnít possibly "be civilized to destroy that which I love." And then, through his anguish and his pain, he resolves to overcome the dark side of his nature, proclaiming: "We are civilized!"
Civility isnít exactly a high priority these days. But historically, itís one of the few things that separate us from other species. As we become less civilized we become less human, and less receptive to the real joy that comes from patience, tolerance, forgiveness and love. And if weíre not careful, one day weíll find ourselves completely out of control, trying to dominate a world in which our only competitive advantage over other animals comes from our thumbs.
And, of course, our fingers Ė red-nailed or otherwise.
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--- © Joseph Walker
Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com.