No, this post is not about my fractured middle finger from a few posts ago, though it is healing nicely, thanks for asking.
Yesterday morning, I was driving to drop off my kids at their mom’s house on my way to work. They were subdued and barely conscious, having just woken up minutes before I herded them into the car. It was a peaceful morning, and the sun was already hot as it filtered through my dirty windshield. I came to an intersection, and stopped at the red light. I tapped on the steering wheel in time with the music on the radio, waiting for the light to change.
I was in the third of four lanes of traffic, so there were two lanes between me and the curb on the right. I had a few cars in front of me, but no cars to my right, so I had a clear view of the bus stop at the corner. I wasn’t really paying attention to anything, just waiting for the light to change, as I glanced at the people waiting on the bench for their bus.
Then I saw him. Young man, mid-twenties, sitting away from the rest of the people at the bus stop. Scowl on his face, arm extended, middle finger raised in the air. Both the scowl and the finger were directed at me.
This bus stop stranger was flipping me off.
I stared at him for a moment, wondering if perhaps there was some sort of hate message scrawled on the passenger side of my vehicle that I couldn’t see, and maybe that’s what he was objecting to. Of course that couldn’t be – my kids would’ve seen it when they got in the car. Then I thought, “is he flipping off my kids?” But a quick look at them ruled that out – they were reclined in the car seats, completely out of view.
That left only me. I had a few seconds where I wondered, “What could I have done to earn this man’s scorn?” I went through a mental list – my hair color, my skin color, my choice in sunglasses, maybe he hates people who drive Hondas – and each one was as absurd as the last. What did I do? I was baffled.
Then two cars pulled up in the lanes between us. The man adjusted his arm slightly. The finger was also adjusted so that it was clearly directed at the new arrivals.
The man wasn’t flipping me off. He was flipping us all off.
I watched as additional cars pulled up, and his finger addressed them all. I couldn’t tell if the other drivers saw him or noticed the greeting they were receiving, but I saw the man being very diligent in his finger gestures, ensuring that all the waiting vehicles got a piece of that bird.
A bus came and blocked the curb from view, and I could see him no more. Then the light turned green and I proceeded on my way.
There was a time when I would have reacted quite differently to this experience. I would have at least raised my finger in return, perhaps giving him two for the price of one. I might have yelled something at him, counting on his reluctance to dart out into traffic to save me from a beatdown. Most certainly I would have let the man’s rude gesture allow him to take up space in my head, rent-free, and I would have been pissed off beyond measure and hated on him for the rest of the day. That’s what I usually did in response to the rude behavior of strangers on the road.
That’s not how I responded to this, though. The first thought I had, once I realized that this young man was sitting at a bus stop and giving the world the finger, was one of empathy. “That’s a wounded man right there,” I thought to myself as I proceeded through the intersection. Whatever hurt and pain he has experienced in life, he has not processed it, and he has no idea how to. He’s one of the walking wounded, and he’s directing his pain out at the world.
I could have dismissed it simply as, “What an asshole!” but I knew better. I knew better because I’ve been there. I’ve been in the headspace where I could find nothing right about the world; where I hated everything and everyone — myself most of all. I’ve been in the space where I blamed everyone else for my problems. I’ve been the victim. I’ve been the ball of rage. I’ve been the guy whose only way of expressing the pain was through destructive acts and anti-social behavior.
I may have never sat at a bus stop and flipped off passing traffic, but I have known the pain and frustration and anger of being a young man with no tools to deal with life on life’s terms, and no emotional connection with anything or anyone. I’ve been adrift and alone. And it’s a sad, scary place.
The man didn’t take up space in my head the way he might have once upon a time. He did take up space in my heart, though. I felt sadness for him. And I felt sadness for our world, for there are millions of young men out there who are just like him – who think the way to be a man is to be an aggressive, posturing thug so nobody can see that deep down they’re scared little boys. I do lots of work with men in various circles of fellowship, and I see it over and over – the remorse of men who have lived their lives this way, creating wreckage and destruction because they don’t know anything different. I’m grateful for these men who have the courage to look within and see this. Sadly, it’s a tiny percentage of the men who need it.
I said a prayer for the man as I drove away, asking that his burden be lightened and that he somehow finds his way. And to my surprise, I was thankful for getting flipped off. It was an opportunity to see how far I’ve come, and to be grateful for the people in my life who have helped me find my own way.
So next time someone flips you off, remember – it’s not about you. It’s about them. For them, it’s an expression of their misery in life. For you, it’s just a finger.