Sunday, June 22, 2008

Impulse, Thought, and Regret

Yesterday, a trip from Central New Jersey to Baltimore that might otherwise have taken three hours took four instead. That extra middle hour was, for all intents and purposes, spent between the first three exits on I-95 inside Delaware.

The southbound lanes were deadlocked. Midday this first weekend of summer, it was sunny and hot, a situation exacerbated by our collective inability to even reach five miles-per-hour for more than a second or two at a time. Before I was sensible enough to roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioner, I considered the irony: right behind me in the trunk, just a few feet away yet completely inaccessible, was whatever was left of my stash of Gatorade. As a sometimes-martial-arts-instructor, there is an undeniable convenience in being able to grab a bottle with the gym bag on the way in to class. Now they just taunted me.

I was in the left-most lane, but it did not matter: There was no "fast" lane, per se, though there were those typical folks jockeying for non-existent position or looking for a way to see forward past an arbitrary SUV with tinted windows that inevitably was blocking the view; after all, just ahead of that SUV was surely open road...

For a short time, one of those SUVs was behind me, piloted and occupied by three pretty college-aged girls. Out of nowhere came the thought: Maybe twenty years earlier, I might have stopped my car, popped the trunk, and offered them a drink. Now twenty years later, I just smiled. Within a few minutes, one of those other cars swerved in between us hoping to find paradise ahead, but found my beat up Saturn instead. The moment dissolved naturally.

Some time later, I saw the car parked on the shoulder, hazard lights on. Maybe a flat? Maybe overheated? Maybe just taking a break? Who knew? Moving a little closer, a few feet at a time, I saw a young man, in his late twenties perhaps, outside that car. Who could blame him? It was probably easier to stand over the asphalt in the direct sun than to bake inside the stationary oven.

Some time later, now alongside, I saw the fellow wiping a baby's bottle by the trunk, then handing it through the rear window to a woman holding an infant...

There are moments in life when time dilates, when as if in slow motion you are conscious of the moment in excruciating detail. Rarely has it happened to me because things actually were moving in slow motion though.

In an instant, the compassionate notion to pull over and check on them, to offer them the drinks, arose; but, in the very next moment, that notion moved into the realm of thought and reason... I wondered what was wrong with their car? I have no mechanical skills, so there really was no point in that question... I wondered if help was on the way? There were the occasional tow trucks crawling up the shoulder, after all... I wondered if in fact the engine and air conditioning were working? If so, they would be fine... I wondered if the traffic was ready to break? If so, they'd be noticed by someone more competent than me shortly... I wondered whether I could make it back to Maryland in time for my wife's recital if I stopped now... I wondered if they would have felt threatened had I stopped? A young husband cornered, watching over his wife and infant as a ragged fellow in a beaten car approaches them might not understand the advance...

Punctuating each question was the discrete movement by one single car-length at a time. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. ...

Slowly climbing a hill, at one point I still thought I could still pull over and run back to them, but I didn't. Approaching the crest, I saw two motorcyclists taking a break on the shoulder. I thought I could ask them to run the drinks back, but I didn't. A few minutes later, I still saw them all in my side mirror, but a few moments later I didn't; I'd crested the hill and they were lost from sight---but not from mind.

Not too long later traffic broke, and sometime later I was at home. Worn from the trip, as I took my bag from the trunk, I took one of the three remaining Gatorade bottles from the plastic rings. I sat down inside, and I drank it.

Within one hour, on one slow stretch of highway, the notion to make a gift of my stashed Gatorade arose and moved into thought twice. In the first case, reason's intervention potentially saved me from explaining to the police and to my wife what I was doing approaching coeds trapped in the SUV behind me on I-95. In the second case, reason's intervention potentially prevented me from helping a young family in distress...

But all of this is speculation: Had I freely offered the three girls the three bottles, I would have had none to help the couple. Would offering the girls the drinks put a smile on a despondent teen's face? What if I had the foresight to know that the couple was there, but not the prescience to know that they had their own trunk filled with Gatorade, thus missing the opportunity to offer to the girls? What if that couple was up to no good? What if someone had some strange allergic reaction? ...

What if...? What if...? What if...? There are infinitely many stories we can create about how we came to that point and infinitely many stories we can create about what transpired afterward. The feeling of regret---the looking back at past decisions or indecision and considering how things might be different now had circumstances or choices been different then---is fruitless. Here we are, right now---what are we to do about a moment ago?

Before the thoughts arose, what was actually the same or different between the two impulses? Before thoughts of "flirtation" or "compassion" were assigned, was either impulse "right" or "wrong"? Was engaging thought an error? Maybe in one case but not the other?

It is a Zen koan of sorts, worth everyone's consideration...

I still see it's still trendy to wear the "WWJD - What would Jesus do?" bracelets in some circles. So, go ahead: consider the question. If you are confident that you know the sage's answer, I'll suggest you likely missed it.

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