You’re cruising down the highway, getting where you want to be.
Out of nowhere, you’re hitting your brakes.
Then, you’re completely stopped.
You mutter a few bad words. Maybe you call or text someone to tell them you’ll be running late. Maybe your gas tank isn’t as full as you wish it was. Maybe one of your passengers has to pee. Maybe you do.
Or maybe you put a smile on your face. Maybe you grin and bear it.
I can’t control traffic. I can only control me.
Or maybe you lose your shit because you’re a person like me and are always in a hurry to get out of the car. Maybe you get irrationally upset when things annoy you while you’re behind the wheel and you turn into the ugliest version of yourself.
Usually, I mutter a bunch of horrible things that make Jesus and all of my dead relatives sad, and then I calm down and remember that I can only control me.
Eventually traffic gets moving again.
What could have caused this massive traffic jam I’ve been stuck in for a half hour?
Eventually, you’re travelling at normal cruising speeds. There was no accident. No obstacle. No construction. No nothing.
A phantom traffic jam.
The Power of One
Just one asshole.
That’s all it takes to cause a phantom traffic jam.
I have two routes to choose from every morning when I drive to work. One is highway. One is back roads.
A train crossing was flashing red lights at me this morning, so I turned onto the highway.
Traffic was horrible. Three lanes of horrible.
Some mornings, everything is fine. Many others are just like this. The results are generally the same on this stretch of road.
Phantom traffic jams.
I was in one this morning.
Just a bunch of drivers heading to work. Many people merging onto the highway, and pulling off on their various exits.
While we’re all human and mistake-prone, motor vehicle operation brings out the worst of humankind. And when there are a bunch of drivers travelling 70 miles per hour throughout three lanes of traffic, it only takes one mouth breather to slam on his brakes because he was texting and driving, or some attuned driver braking or swerving to avoid the girl furiously applying her makeup while talking on the phone to one of her friends while merging into highway traffic with a baby in the backseat.
“Horn (an MIT computer scientist) says it’s like a wave flowing backwards,” said NPR science correspondent Joe Palca in a radio interview that you can read here discussing phantom traffic jams. “People who study this talk about chaotic systems and positive feedback, but the practical consequences are that the amount of drivers having to slow down increases the further back you are from the original incident.”
Just one asshole.
Causing hundreds of drivers to make Jesus and their dead relatives sad.
It only takes one.
“Hey Matt! Who Gives a Shit?”
That’s a fair question.
Everything’s a metaphor with me these days. Even phantom traffic jams.
Because it only takes one incident (and that incident may have been an innocent mistake) to cause a huge chain of misery for a bunch of other people.
There’s no way to prevent these from happening. Because the world will always have selfish people taking and taking and taking, or some normal person accidentally getting it wrong.
The world will always have people who don’t care as much as others about doing the right thing.
Men who cheat and lie and abuse women are always going to “ruin it” for the rest of us.
Women who gold dig, use sex as a weapon, and abuse men are always going to “ruin it” for the women trying to do the right thing.
Naughty kids are always going to “ruin it” for the less-naughty kids.
Almost every crappy rule in the world is in place because of those select few who abused the freedom and privilege once afforded them.
Sometimes our spouses make thoughtless mistakes. Our children are clueless. Our friends are busy just like us.
We all accidentally annoy one another. Causing phantom traffic jams. Because we weren’t paying close enough attention.
We can choose to scream a bunch of obscenities and act like assholes. I’ll probably do that for at least a few seconds.
Or we can choose to be in control and make good choices.
Patience will get us through the incident at the exact same speed as if we act like assholes. And if we’re extra astute, we can choose a detour. A different route to get us where we need to be.
The road less traveled.
We can even do one better.
We can be part of the solution.
Paying attention. Keeping an appropriate distance away from the person in front of us. Keeping an eye on the person behind us.
Doing our little part to help ease the congestion by doing all the little things thoughtfully and conscientiously.
Being the change.
Making it just a little bit better for others and ourselves.
Until we’re all smooth sailing again.