The Road Not Taken

Exit the main streets of Washington, D.C., and you’ll find yourself driving through narrow chutes lined with parked cars, wishing your ride was a Mini Cooper.

The same situation plays out in cities around the world, where buildings were constructed, and inner-city neighborhoods established, long before the rise of the automobile.

A few weeks back, my mother visited Washington, D.C. She found herself near Eastern Market, behind a delivery truck on one of those narrow, one-way roads. Just before the intersection, the truck pulled tight to the right and stopped for a delivery. This left Mom with three options: 1) hold her breath and try to squeeze between the truck and the parked car on the left side of the street; 2) back up and turn down the alley she’d just passed; or 3) wait for the truck to finish its delivery and then move forward.

She eyeballed the open space and decided to keep her side-view mirrors. She looked in her rearview mirror and saw an SUV pulling up and blocking the exit to the alley. She stared at the delivery truck driver and the number of packages on his dolley, and settled on waiting for his return.

The SUV driver had something different in mind.

He laid into his horn. First a few short beeps, then a long, drawn out beeeeeeeeeeeep—and then he got out of his car and started yelling at her. Mom rolled down her window and told him she couldn’t move, but he could back into the alley. He yelled, “You’re pathetic,” stomped back to his SUV, reversed at a high speed, and turned into the alley.

In his book Roads Were Not Built For Cars, Carlton Reid wrote:

Social scientists theorise that humans believe in three kinds of territorial space. One is personal territory, like home. The second involves space that is only temporarily available, such as a gym locker. The third kind is public territory, such as roads.

“Territoriality is hard-wired into our ancestors,” believes Paul Bell, co-author of a study on road rage. “Animals are territorial because it had survival value. If you could keep others away from your hunting groups, you had more game to spear, it becomes part of the biology.”

When they are on the road, some motorists forget they are in public territory because the cues surrounding them – personal music, fluffy dice, protective shells – suggest they are in private space.

“If you are in a vehicle that you identify as primary territory, you would defend that against other people whom you perceive as being disrespectful of your space,” added Bell. “What you ignore is that you are on a public roadway – and you don’t own the road.”

Remember that.

You are on a public roadway. You don’t own the road.

Imagine if the SUV driver had shifted his thinking to he and Mom as fellow travelers, instead of viewing her as an obstacle blocking his path, infringing on his world.

If you’ve ever been stuck behind a stalled car on the highway or a delivery truck on a crammed side street, you know that the worst position is the one directly behind the stalled car or delivery truck. You can’t move forward and often other cars block you from moving backward. If you’re on the highway, you might try nosing out into the next lane, knowing you’ll have to gun it before other passing cars reach you. If you’re on the one-way road, you have to hope the cars behind you back out so that you can move. You have the least amount of power, so you have to rely on those around you.

What if the SUV driver had thought about that, and instead of honking and yelling, had backed up right away and exited via the alley. What if his first thought was about helping two people instead of just helping himself?

Now think about the Internet and Earth.

The Internet is kin to Earth, and just like Earth, the people building upon it built some narrow roads. When they started building, they didn’t do it with Facebook and Amazon in mind—nor did they do it with every territorial issue in mind. No one said, “Let’s build another location to bully people.” Cyber-bullying evolved on its own, just as did road rage and other forms of territorial hatred and violence.

What Mom experienced on the streets of Washington, D.C., is something we’ve all seen play out online.

None of us own the Internet any more than one individual person owns all the public roads or the Earth itself, yet behavior indicates otherwise.

It’s got to stop.

I don’t spew hatred online, but I yell in my car when someone cuts me off—and my kids see it and hear it.

That’s one of my goals for 2018, to check my behavior and think about what’s going on in other cars, lives, and so on—to think about us, rather than me.

And just to tie this into marketing and doing/sharing our work, which is what this blog hits upon, there’s this:

As the SUV driver was yelling at Mom, she got a look at the identification tags swinging on the lanyard around his neck. The driver’s rapid movements kept the tag flipping, so she didn’t catch his exact name, but what if she had—and what if the government agency associated with the tag had received a phone call from her about the behavior of the SUV driver? And what if they knew that this behavior played out in front of my nine-years-old niece, too?

Being kind, thinking about others, focusing on we instead of I all the time, is good for your business.

One more thing: That negative behavior is a distraction. It will get in your head and in the way of your work.

Unfortunately, today it seems the road most traveled. It is the one of rage, and of horn blowing, and of yelling.

So if you find yourself in a yellow wood (or a street in Washington, D.C.), and find yourself with a choice. Choose the road less traveled. It will make all the difference.

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  1. Mary Doyle on December 29, 2017 at 4:33 am

    What a thought-provoking post to end 2017 with Callie! You and I share the same goal for 2018 in terms of thinking about what’s going on in other lives. Thank you for a valuable reminder, and thank you for another year of great posts. Happy New Year!

  2. Tom Wood on December 29, 2017 at 6:28 am

    Great article, thank you!

    A similar thought process is expressed by David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech titled “This is Water”.

  3. Ted Garvin on December 29, 2017 at 6:38 am

    The wife of our erstwhile priest (Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal, Sapulpa) devised a simple Lenten devotion: not flipping off or cursing at/about other drivers. It was amazing what change this made in her and her husband’s life.

  4. Susan on December 29, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Oh, I hope this is catching!! If folks start practicing empathy and patience, it could turn the world into a saner place. My goal this year is to practice those things on myself and those closest to me. When I’m agitated, I can’t write!! Thanks. Callie.

    • Hessa Joseph on November 7, 2023 at 2:33 am

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  5. Writeraa on December 29, 2017 at 7:04 am

    “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:

    At the first gate, ask yourself “Is is true?”
    At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?”
    At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”
    ~ Rumi

    Or, as a wise friend once told me after I spent 10 minutes complaining how this driver went too slow in the fast lane, that driver went too fast in the slow lane, another one failed to use her turn signal, someone else tailgated me, and on and on went the kvetching (we were at a café and my friend had opened the morning paper across one knee, tuning me out as I piled the real and imagined transgressions on the table) “Maybe you should just drive your own car.”

    • Madeleine D'Este on December 29, 2017 at 12:15 pm

      Wise words and similar to my parent’s favourite – ‘keep your eyes on your own plate’.

  6. Anna on December 29, 2017 at 7:08 am

    What a wonderful goal for the new year. Great post!

  7. Joe on December 29, 2017 at 7:16 am

    Couple things:

    ** The three banners that say to me “good writing” are: 1) Makes me laugh involuntarily, 2) Makes me say “Wow,” and 3) Makes me go “I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but I see it now.” I’m listening to your take on how modernity (motoring around in our steel and plastic eggs with the fuzzy dice) causes us to misinterpret public territory as our personal territory.

    ** Now reading Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe” and he talks on some of the same themes — we’re wired by evolution to share food, share protection, share our fires in small tribes of 40 or 50. But modernity has told us we’re alone and put us in cubicles and behind screens and hedges and we forget that we’re connected and we need each other.

    ** The line: “What if his first thought was about helping two people instead of just helping himself?” Ya.

    ** I wonder if I’d think your pieces were as good if I didn’t know “this is Callie writing.” Hard to know, I guess. Because your name is right up there.

    • Brian S Nelson on December 29, 2017 at 8:08 am

      If you enjoy “Tribe”, you may also enjoy the interview Sebastian Junger does on the Tim Ferriss Podcast here:

      Ferris does long-format podcasts, so this one is 2+ hours–but I found it as interesting as his book.

      Happy New Year!

      • Joe on December 29, 2017 at 8:35 am

        Thanks, Brian. Found it and tagged it. (Tim’s got a number of interesting characters he talks to, it looks like.) Appreciate the tip.

  8. Brian S Nelson on December 29, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Great post Callie. I felt the righteous indignation rise inside me as I pictured some oaf leaving his car to yell at your mother.

    Loved the territory information. Simply knowing the influences/drivers of my thoughts/feelings/behaviors give me a toe-hold to controlling them.

    “Leadership and Self Deception” and “The Anatomy of Peace” by the Arbinger Institute are two books that describe the inward mindset, its effects, and how to combat it. Both are terrific reads that I re-listen to 2-3 times a year, just like War of Art and Turning Pro. I need frequent reminders…

    Happy New Year.

  9. Don Schulte on December 29, 2017 at 7:27 am

    There are always more options. In this case, number 4 would be to get out of the car and help the driver deliver his packages faster. That would be the opposite of the SUV driver’s reaction. But that takes a radically different thinking perspective, I guess.

  10. Erik Dolson on December 29, 2017 at 7:39 am

    ““Territoriality is hard-wired into our ancestors … Animals are territorial because it had survival value.” We shared with our own, defended against not-our-own.

    The spaces we occupy today: cities, roadways, the Internet, force us into contact with others not-my-own. Hard-wiring is invoked, territoriality triggered. Except at Christmas or during national tragedy, when I see you as my-own and smile instead of snarl.

    With so many forces, intentional and otherwise, taking advantage of territorial strife, how will we see strangers as family and rise above?

  11. Barbara Newton-Holmes on December 29, 2017 at 8:20 am

    Thanks, Callie! Happy New Year!

  12. Debbie L Kasman on December 29, 2017 at 8:24 am

    Beautiful,Callie! An enlightened response in an unenlightened world. Here’s to more people waking up in 2018! Happy New Year!

  13. Sean Crawford on December 29, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    I like Don Shultze’s suggestion, although I suppose I couldn’t say it to the SUV guy, as he would be too irrational to think like a man.

    As for territory and tribalism, I didn’t make my way to the top of the food chain in a concrete space-age city just to act like I’m still in the jungle. It’s my responsibility to rise above my common clay.

  14. Renita on December 29, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    The idea that any of this space or property is mine is a temporary one. I just went through being evacuated due to fires in Southern California and was relieved to see my home standing. But the experience of releasing it all and knowing it could all be gone stays with me. None of this is permanently mine. It is all temporary.

    • Renita on December 29, 2017 at 5:30 pm

      And btw the experience has brought the community together.

  15. Julia Murphy on December 29, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    I must say, Callie, you have the most interesting juxtapositioning and intersecting stories.

    I’ll keep pondering territorialism for some time. Thanks.

  16. Danny on December 30, 2017 at 3:50 pm

    Going back to social scientists about territorial space and the example you gave.

    You painted a picture of an extremist (SUV) and a neutral (mom). The SUV driver was unreasonable for the environment “hold her breath to squeeze by”. The same also applies the other way around.

    I live in Los Angeles and there is a lot of traffic, especially inner-city. When making a left-turn, where there is no arrow, the standard is to wait until the light changes to yellow and then 2 cars can make a left turn. When getting ready for the left turn the car should go 1/3 of the way into the median so the car behind has a chance to make the light. Sometimes there are people who don’t go into the median at all and only allow for 1 car to go. Sometimes they miss the light all-together.

    As you would say, they do not own the road. There is a standard in Los Angeles- 2 cars per light. Why should the line of cars behind them suffer because they are using the road the way they wish?

    Although I did want to counter your story, this is a real scenario I struggle with all the time. I say there are rules to every environment you’re in, if you don’t want to play by the rules, then don’t play. Don’t play a game where you disagree with the rules and you try to change them the way you see fit. This goes for SUV drivers and “mothers” everywhere.

    You’re right, when creating the city they didn’t think about the roads at the time. However, the city is what it is today regardless of the initial intention. Today’s rules of NYC driving are that of aggressive drivers. Honestly, the SUV driver was kinda right (in the sense your mom should have moved. Not the yelling and screaming, although the yelling and screaming is also a standard of the NYC environment). It’s NYC and everyone is in a rush.

    Just as the SUV driver could think of your mom, your mom could have thought for him. Next time your mom leaves the house she will remember the SUV driver and how he is part of the environment she is about to travel. If that’s not something she can do, then maybe its best if The Road Not Taken.

  17. Tim Colman on January 4, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    Cars don’t belong on streets. We’re driving over civilization’s cliff with our fossil fuels cooking the climate.

    And some people are still trying to justify their resentments.

    People who cut you off are practice fields for noticing you live on a planet in the middle of nowhere.

    What is the point?

    So you can be right? And the fallout is that your justified resentment keeps engaging your conditioned mind in the same kind of reflex circuit Stephen talks about in The War of Art about resistance.

    It is actually the same energy pattern manifesting. This kind of thought violence is permitted to run again and again on the person who is pissed off.

    How long did they carry your Mom around? Look at these comments and see who is still carrying one or the other around. And the landscape and NYC and any other justifications…

    Practice relaxing and breathing through it. Then save the drama for your paper and pen.

  18. Andy Krause on January 17, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    Thank you! I enjoyed this.

  19. Gene Smith on March 2, 2018 at 12:57 pm

    Like life itself, driving is a team sport.

  20. run 3 on November 28, 2020 at 11:55 pm

    I just joined the forum so there are so many things I don’t know yet, I hope to have the help of the boards, and I really want to get to know you all on the forum

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