To this day I’m not entirely sure he was speeding. Maybe 55 in a 50. But it made me insane for a brief moment.
Just before that I had been in supremely thoughtful and grateful mood, just having visited my one-year-old nephew. Little kids make me more mindful, of how abruptly I move, of where I put my feet, of what I say, until I forget.
When I left my sister’s house the world felt like a china shop to me. Priceless and deserving of care.
So when the little Hyundai with the skinny driver came whipping thoughtlessly around the curve in front of the house, I couldn’t bear it. The Holden Caulfield in me took over and I slammed on the horn.
My car was still parked, so for him the honk must have come out of nowhere, and he almost jumped out of his seat, like he was in a cartoon.
He was a young guy with thick glasses, altogether harmless looking, and I felt bad immediately. I’m sure he had no idea I existed, or why anyone was honking at all.
I just wanted him to slow down on a residential street where kids live. But it was the wrong way. I was in my own world and he was in his and I communicated nothing to him.
The image of him bouncing up from his seat, whipping his head around stays with me, and it reminds me not to be such a goon when I think I’m in the right. That’s when I need to be most careful: when I’m sure I’m right.
The truth, as seen from the other angle
Months later there was another incident in which nothing terrible actually happened but it left a much more serious image in my head. It was a nearly identical situation except the thoughtless driver was me this time.
I was leaving a newly-built subdivision after dealing with the most unreasonable contractor I think I’ve ever dealt with. I was mad and certain that I was right to be.
I don’t think I was speeding, but I whipped around a parked van on a curve and was surprised by a little girl slowly riding her bike up the other side of the street. She was dressed in pink and her bike was pink. I didn’t come close to her but my sudden appearance startled her and she almost lost her balance.
The sight of her wobbling on her bike because of me broke my heart, and after I passed her and turned the corner I pulled over and sat there for a minute.
The image is still razor-sharp in my mind and I think of it often. It always does the same thing to me. I slow down whether I’m driving or not, and I become hyper-aware of the harm I could cause when I lose my mind like that.
There are millions of verbal lessons and aphorisms floating around in my mind, and they don’t always strike me the same way when I think of them. Words are too prone to the rhetoric of an argumentative mind like mine. Whenever I’m feeling self-righteous, I can rationalize away any words that don’t agree with me.
But images are immune to this. They seem to bypass whatever part of the brain it is that tries to start an argument. No words to fight it with, no handles to dismiss it with. The moral is right there in front of you.
In 1993 a photographer named Kevin Carter took an awful image nobody could argue with, and it won him a Pulitzer Prize. I’m sure you’ve seen it.
Less than a year later, for what sounds like a combination of reasons, he took his own life. He had expressed distress about the above image and others he had seen and captured. From his suicide note: “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”
Images have a staying power in the mind that words can’t touch. There’s no way to soften them. They can burn themselves into your head, and maybe that’s the only way to have a truth that means the same thing on different days and in different moods.
I know now that beliefs, when they take the form of words, tend to mean whatever we need them to mean in the moment. Two different self-righteous internal dialogues, a few months apart, had me on both sides of what was essentially the same situation. Both times I was in the middle of telling myself I was right, until an image kicked me in the stomach and showed me what was true.
When I think of the pink girl wobbling on her bike because of me, there’s no way I can argue with it. I know exactly what it means and for the sake of everyone I hope I never forget it.
Photos by Heather Van Buren and Kevin Carter