Monday, June 7, 2010

Maximum Posted Suggestion - Or: On the Evils of Speeding

In early May, nineteen-ninety-eight, I drove my aging diesel Jetta at a blistering ninety kilometers an hour down the long hill into 100 Mile House, British Columbia. I had failed to see the sign at the top of the hill that halved the speed limit. With a flash of red and blue lights, a cop going the other direction flipped a U-turn and fell in behind me. I pulled my overstuffed car onto the broad, paved shoulder in front of the Ramada Inn, rolled my window down the rest of the way and sagged onto the steering wheel. It was the beginning of another summer of tree planting and as usual, tuition had left me broke. This was going to hurt.

A hand thwacked onto the peeling-green paint on the roof of my car and I jolted upright and turned to look straight into the sunglasses of a bulky officer of the law. He cleared his throat.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't give you the biggest ticket you ever got," he said, with a smirk that I was too terrified to notice.

"Uh. Uh. Uh..."

I paused, collected my thoughts, and started over. "Officer, I am really, really sorry I didn't notice the sign. I've driven this road a lot of times, and you'd think I would know better by now. The truth is, I always obey the speed limit. I'm the most ridiculously ridiculous observer of traffic laws that you've ever pulled over. I've never had a speeding ticket before because I always follow the speed limit. I annoy the people behind me, and I annoy my friends in the car. Seriously... just ask them."

He looked at Ryan, who was nodding in the passenger seat, and then leaned over and glanced into the stuffed back seat, where from between piles of bags and planting gear my brother and the hulking Trevor Wallace were also vigorously nodding their heads. "Seriously... he's such a pain," my brother said.

The officer tapped a ballpoint on his pad of poverty.

"All right," he said at last, "Get out of here... and slow down in my town."

Still shaking, I put the car in first and lurched off down the road, once again scrupulously obeying the dictates of the government's conscience, annoying everyone. It was a sort of habit.

See, back in those days I was determined to show everyone that I was a good little Christian boy - and Christian boys obey the law of the land. They have to, because it's right there in the Bible. Jesus himself said in Mark 12:17 that I needed to render unto Ceasar what was Caesar's... by which he obviously meant that I ought to obey the traffic laws of 100 Mile House, British Columbia.

So I watched that speed dial like an accountant, uphill and down. I drove people mad and learned to drop down a gear and smoke out the tailgaters with billowing blue clouds from my rattling old diesel. I sanctimoniously looked down the hawkish bridge of my nose at those who angrily vroomed by whenever a passing lane opened up, and shook my head sadly at the state of the world as even police officers - police officers! - ripped by me on two-lane roads.

And I was right, dang you all. I was right. I obeyed the letter of that law until it was seared on my shiny-scrubbed little face. And I was right.

Except, of course, for the sanctimony. And the intentional use of diesel smoke to annoy people. Oh, and the obsessive, endless judgment of all those immoral God-haters who had driven their cars even one measly kilometer over the legally posted speed limit. I had the letter of the law down perfectly. It was easy to do - letters of laws always are - but I absolutely and completely missed the point and spirit of the thing. I missed out on the love.

The fact of the existence of a traffic law - or any law, for that matter - does not prove the justice of it. While I do think that it is worthwhile to obey the laws of the land unless there is a compelling moral reason to do otherwise, laws are determined as much by practice as by paper. Besides, laws change as society changes. You don't have to look too far to find laws that exist on paper but are never, ever enforced. What does a law mean when even the cops always break it?

For instance, it is illegal to ride an ugly horse down the street in Wilbur, Washington, and ninth-grade boys can't grow mustaches in Binghamton, New York. You can't carry an ice-cream cone in your pocket in Lexington, Kentucky, and goats can't legally wear trousers in Massachusetts. Oh, and don't mispronounce "Arkansas" when you're in that state... it's against the law.*

While traffic laws do not quite fit into the "weird law" category, the lesson learned from weird laws should still affect our understanding of their relative moral weight, and we shouldn't spend every moment living in fear that if we happen to break a law, it will mean that we're doomed reprobates. Laws change, but people and principles don't. Laws are always based on imperfect, generalized conceptions of what it is best, on average, for people to do. They do not account for individuals. Individuals make mistakes. They fail - sometimes on purpose, and often without even knowing it. Even in my hyper-vigilant speed-watching days, I still from time to time parked my car facing the wrong direction on residential streets and performed some dubious U-turns.

I was ignoring a very important truth - the fact that true character is not revealed by how well I perform relatively simple, straightforward tasks (like complying with speed limits); but rather, through the choices I make under pressure. The harder the choice, the deeper the revelation of true character and the more indicative of who I really am. It is easy, for example, to stay committed to a friend when they are treating me well and buying me cupcakes. It's much harder when they're going through a tough time and have taken to regularly calling me "Mr. Flop-Bott." But until they've fallen to such heinous name-calling, it is impossible to know for sure the depth and quality of my friendship.

In essence, I was using my careful observance of traffic laws as a way of deflecting attention (both mine and others') from things in my character that really were deep flaws - things that needed to be laid out in the open if I was ever to be healed of them. I was manifesting selfishness, pride and fear in a lot of subtle, hidden ways, and was too afraid to expose what I subconsciously believed to be my inherent worthlessness. I took care of the easy, visible stuff and ignored the things that really mattered.

This did not work out so well for me. I got tired of it, and then I gradually began to let it go. Believe it or not, now I sometimes even speed. I don't really mean to, but I just don't watch that dial nearly as closely as I used to. And you know what? I'm pretty happy about my newfound "immorality." It was too dang stressful trying to be perfect. I'm much happier living as if I really believed in grace. Now, don't get me wrong. I do think that laws are there for a reason and that it's important to try to obey them... and I still have yet to get a speeding ticket. Nonetheless, I have at last begun to learn to balance a desire to strive for moral purity with the awareness of my inability to be perfect.

As Viktor Frankl, brilliant thinker and author of "Man's Search for Meaning" (go. read it. right now) said, "If you take man as he really is, you make him worse. But if you seem to be idealists and you overestimate him, you know what happens? You promote him to what he really can be."

My idealistic hope is no longer found in believing that if I can just attain to perfect moral behavior, then I will have meaning and value and love in my life. Rather, it is found in the belief that I already have meaning and value and love (a gift, I believe), and can therefore strive humbly for moral excellence in the little things. I believe that if I can do this, then when the big things arrive - the really difficult, really important choices - I will have made a habit of standing strong for truth, revealing a character that has been shaped and molded by love.

This, I think, is what Jesus would have wanted me to give to Caesar.


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*Wacky laws borrowed from Uncle John's Tenth Anniversary Bathroom Reader. That's right: I'm super highbrow.

1 comment:

  1. A friend of mine who is a lawyer put it this way - "the laws of a nation are not necessarily moral law."

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