Gyges in the Snow

Snow in Atlanta January 2014It took me over six hours to drive eight miles home after lunch on Tuesday.

I was one of a large number of Atlanta drivers affected by yesterday’s snow fall – and I regard myself as quite fortunate to have made it home with my car. I spent over two hours sitting almost stationary on Roswell Road before I decided to turn around and try a different route (Peachtree). Had that not been clear (though it was an ice sheet), I would have left my car and walked. I’ve heard some of today’s news and I dread to think what happened to all those other drivers on Roswell Road.

For the first two hours (from 2:00 on) as the traffic started to congeal, things moved slowly but courteously. Around 4:00 though the whole mood seemed to change. People got anxious; they started cutting and blocking intersections; horns and frustrated gestures started showing up. People seemed to be losing their cool.

With hindsight it seems to me that at just that same time I was also getting anxious and becoming more aggressive in my driving.

I finally got onto Roswell Road, and while the traffic was barely moving, people started settling down. Patience returned. People wound down their windows and smiled; music was playing on their radios; cars were allowed to enter the flow.

With hindsight I now realize that I, too, started to settle down. I turned on a Teaching Company lecture from my ipod and relaxed for what became over two hours before turning around and making my run home.

Again, though, once in the flow of traffic I found my competitiveness returning and my aggression rising. I became intolerant of other drivers trying to pass in these treacherous conditions – one became very angry with me – but it seemed sensible and sage when I did so.

A colleague who was stuck in Newnan told me a very different story of his wonderful experience in a really run down hotel where a diversity of people from the rough to the refined spent time together in the lobby in conversation, care and compassion.

There is an ancient Greek story about the myth of Gyges (I believe it appears in Plato’s Republic and Herodotus’ Histories among others). Gyges finds a ring which, when worn, makes him invisible. When he next visits the king he puts on the ring, seduces the queen, kills the king and takes control of the palace. A situation like yesterday’s drives home very clearly the extent to which our vehicles serve as the ring of Gyges. Somehow when we get behind the wheel of the car we are not just capable of horrible behaviors, but we seem driven to behave in ways we would never dream of doing in a hotel lobby; we are competitive and quick to anger in a situation where we know in our heart the only thing to do is have patience and compassion. When we remove the ring – as in the Newnan hotel, or on the couple of occasions I got out of the car to help others – we are transformed into ordinary people who can smile and love and care.

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