“The quick slick confident judgments we are forever making are merely silly.
Who can read the chaos in another’s soul from which his actions proceed?”

Frank Sheed

 

We were heading home to Indiana from Omaha after a funeral. We’d made a later start than we’d hoped, so I was banking on making it to the Quad Cities before nightfall so we could have a relatively relaxed drive the next day to South Bend.

It had been pretty stormy in Nebraska as we started heading east on I-80 – pretty ominous, actually. Wind and hail, thunder and lightning – the kind that flashes horizontally across the sky, the kind that commands attention. My wife, a native Cornhusker, said, “Looks like tornado weather,” and I believed her. Our lumbering Chevy Express took the wind gusts like a champ, but I held tight to the steering wheel all the same.

It was stressful driving alright, and the stress was compounded by the fact that my right turn signal was out of commission. I knew it before we left Indiana a few days earlier – “click-click-click, click-click-click, click-click-click” it alerted when I turned into the Speedway to fill ‘er up. A functioning blinker sounds off more sedately (“click…click…click”), so I knew I had a burned out bulb – and a quick check confirmed it, the right blinker in the rear. I stopped by the auto parts store for a replacement, but I never got around to actually changing it.

Normally I would’ve taken care of it right away because I’m a stickler for signaling turns and lane changes. It’s something I emphasize with my teens when they’re learning to drive. “Don’t be that guy,” I’ve said repeatedly over the years, pointing out vehicles that abruptly shifted in traffic. It’s a huge safety issue, I think, but also a matter of courtesy. I’ve plenty of bad driving habits that require me to tell my kids, “Do as I say, not as I do,” but blinker neglect isn’t one of them.

Sheepishly, then, all the way out to Omaha on I-80, I was forced to fumble my rightward lane changes – waiting for huge gaps before scooching over, shrugging to passing truckers as they glared at me, rationalizing my lack of hand signals due to weather conditions. Left lane changes were a cinch, of course, and I blinked with the best of them (“click…click…click”), but moves to the right were accompanied by the double-time racket of my futile signaling (“click-click-click, click-click-click”). I knew the blinker wasn’t working, but I felt compelled to engage it anyway – almost as if I expected that unseen effort to mitigate my roadway shame. As I pulled it down before merging rightward, my mind raced: “If only those other drivers could see that I want to signal them, that I intended to change the bulb before we left. If they only knew my circumstances – that my wife’s brother died so abruptly, that we’re rushing out to be with family, to grieve, to weep.”

Of course it didn’t matter. Those other drivers along I-80 weren’t omniscient; they could only observe our big ol’ 15-passenger van clumsily migrating to the right from time to time without notification. And, if anybody really paid attention, they might’ve been perplexed by my compensatory extended blinking when I merged in the other direction. “If he knows how to signal left,” they might’ve muttered to themselves, “why doesn’t he signal right?” I did my best to avoid even the slightest hint of cutting people off – to no avail. “You’re getting some nasty looks from the truckers,” my son gleefully reported from the back bench. I was tempted to have him scribble a sign to hold up – RIGHT BLINKER OUT OF ORDER – but decided against it.

So as we rushed across the Plains back home, I was focused on my signaling handicap more than the storm, but that changed once we got into Iowa. The weather guy on the radio noted that the thunderous system ahead of us was moving fast to the east – 55 miles an hour fast. “Wait a minute,” I said aloud. “We’re moving at 70 mph, so we’re gonna’ drive right into the middle of it.” With tornado warnings popping up on the radio, Nancy and I had a brief debate about pros and cons, and we decided it was safest to stop early for the night. It would be tough to make up the mileage the next day in order to get home for my evening clinical commitment, but so be it.

Good thing we did. The storm did indeed produce some ravenous damage down a piece, and we would’ve surely run smack dab into it at nightfall. Plus, there’s this: About an hour or so after we got back on I-80 the next morning, the dashboard starting lighting up like a Christmas tree and the engine sputtered. Nancy prayed with the kids; I uttered an oath and started doing mental calculations on how to handle an isolated I-80 breakdown with my family on board. My signaling guilt evaporated as I threw on the hazards and puttered along the shoulder. What the other drivers thought had become irrelevant – I was in survival mode.

Yet, lo, there in the distance: A Pilot truck stop – glory! Apparently God heard the kids’ prayers (and ignored my oath). We coasted down to the off ramp, “signaled” right, and pulled into the nearest parking space. With the able assistance of Josh, a Pilot diagnostician, Tim’s tow service, and Adam, a service rep at Davenport’s Chevy dealership, we obtained a replacement alternator and resumed our homeward journey – and Adam had thrown in the blinker bulb replacement at no extra charge (“click, click, click” [*sigh*]).

Grateful and relieved, not to mention chastened by my recent hobbled signaling experience, I adopted a decidedly forbearing lane-change philosophy the rest of the trip. Those cars and SUVs weaving in and out of traffic without warning? Who knows? Maybe, like me, the drivers had intended to replace their burned-out blinker bulbs, but circumstances intervened. Maybe they’re dealing with grief or emergencies of their own – maybe an ailing son or daughter, a spouse newly diagnosed with cancer. Maybe emotional pain due to some intractable addiction or divorce; maybe mental anguish and stress due to job loss – can’t make the rent, how will I buy groceries for the fam? Oh God, oh God, help me!

The blinker might not even be on the radar at all.

The whole episode brought to mind Raymond Carver’s wrenching story, “A Small, Good Thing” (1983) – the one about the couple whose young son, Scotty, is struck by a car on his birthday. Do you remember it? The boy goes into a coma, his parents are overwhelmed and panicky, the boy’s death (which is no spoiler; you know it’s coming to that as soon as you start reading), the parents in shock – remember? Maybe not all the details, but I’ll bet you remember the baker – the baker who made the special birthday cake for the boy and who keeps calling the parents throughout the story to remind them of their abandoned special order. There’s no way the baker can know of the family’s tragedy, the unspeakable pain and the cake’s superfluity. All he knows is his own pain, and he lashes out at those whom he thinks took advantage of him.

When the desperate and grieving parents finally figure out who keeps plaguing them with cruel calls (“Have you forgotten about Scotty?”), they race down to the bakery to confront him. And here’s where grace touches down in this agonizing landscape, here’s where Carver pushes back the human frailty and fault, where he locates hope where you’d least expect it. Scotty’s mom, ready to pounce – and justly so – collapses into the vacuum of her loss; the dad makes an accusatory jab, but he too backs down.

Instead, these two suffering souls become a source of solace for the contrite and melancholy baker:

Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty.

The baker, in ignorance, had judged the seemingly deadbeat parents; the parents had judged the seemingly callous baker. The respective parties’ actions could be judged on their face, but intentions and mitigating factors were obscure. Nonetheless, when all comes to light at the end of Carver’s story, then forgiveness becomes abundant and freely shared – like the baker’s warm cinnamon rolls shared with Scotty’s grieving folks, and the openhearted receptivity the parents shared with the lonely baker. It’s an unforgettable image of how we might generously make room for the broken humanness of others, and in return receive plenty of room for our own.

When I finally caught up with my students Wednesday night, I shared with them my interstate tale of woe along with the previous day’s Gospel: St. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer, which was an especially appropriate illustration of the lesson I’d (re-)learned on the road. “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you,” Jesus sums up at the end. “But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”

I told my students about my broken blinker and my sincere, but thwarted, desire to signal appropriately. I told them of my change of heart with regards to blinker usage and other drivers – how I consciously jettisoned my self-righteous indignation, how I’m trying to assume the best of my fellow motorists now, how I’m acutely aware of my taking such leniency for granted.

Finally, I suggested the whole thing was a timely Lenten lesson that has implications far beyond highways and lane changes – that we as Christians ought to gauge others’ actions with patience and liberality, or at least make that our goal. “To avoid rash judgment,” the Catechism reads, “everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way” (CCC 2478).

In any case, you can expect the same from me next time we meet on the road. Dare I ask the same of you?