Fender Bender
By Don H. Staheli

Creeping along in rush hour traffic, the only stimulations I can find are public radio and the anticipation of a warm dinner. The stress and anxiety of the workday are just beginning to dissipate, but the traffic isn’t helping much.

I may make it through the intersection on the next green light, or at least I could if the guy in front of me would move a little faster and narrow the gap between him and the car ahead. The lady in the car behind me is not a bit shy about keeping on my bumper. I glance in the rearview mirror, hoping she is paying attention.

The light turns yellow and one more car sneaks through, but not Mr. Conservative in front of me. Just then, my head jerks back as Mrs. Tailgater finally gets her wish – to put her bumper where my bumper is supposed to be. Not much of a crash, but I’d better take a look.

Out of the car, on foot in the crowded street, I feel all eyes on me as I survey the damage. I can’t see even a scratch. She rolls down her window, and I tell her there’s no damage. She offers no apology, just a lame excuse about it being a new car and she’s not used to the length.

I resist suggesting that discretion might be the better part of valor in such circumstances: Just stay back a little and you won’t be hitting the people ahead of you. Instead, I wish her well and climb back into my car. By now they have cleared out ahead of me and I can move right up to the light. Next time through will be my turn. Mine and Mrs. Tailgater’s. Luckily, she goes straight as I turn onto a cross street and head for home.

Even as home comes closer, I can’t help but think of Mrs. Tailgater. What was she thinking? If she can’t judge the length of her car, why doesn’t she keep her distance? Is she stupid? Is she mean? Did she plan to hit my car?

Of course not.

She is just a regular person, trying to get home safely, her mind somewhat numbed by the fatigue of a workday and the snail pace of the traffic. Her attention waned for a moment, and she allowed her car to creep forward an inch too far. No real harm done. No reason for me to be angry or to harshly judge her competence.

None of us is free from the occasional bumps and scrapes of human interaction. We all receive a few here and there and probably give as many as we get. Most likely none of those who offend are part of a great conspiracy to do us harm; nor are we acting with malice toward any of our neighbors when we harm them. Fender benders are a part of life, a part of getting around in the world.

One of the best experiences I have had with another person came after one of these rough encounters. He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him. I’m sure he was actually unaware that I was a bit banged up by his behavior.

We were sitting in a large public eating area, he and his friends at one table and I alone at another. I had never seen him before. He was talking so loudly that I honestly couldn’t help but overhear the harsh criticism he was leveling at some folks I did know. He was really venting his frustration, but from what he was saying, I could tell he didn’t really know what he was talking about. That made his remarks all the more bothersome, and I was sorely tempted to confront him on the spot and correct and condemn what was clearly wrong and seemed to be mean and ugly talk. Had I known him, I probably would have. As it was, I just walked away.

As I thought about the experience, however, it felt all the more important to set him straight and let him know the facts in the matter about which he was so angry. So, the next time I saw him in the area, I asked a friend who this guy was. I was able to learn his name and where he worked, so later I called him on the telephone, introduced myself, and asked him to come to my office for a chat. He was willing to come, like a lamb to the slaughter.

Then there popped into my mind a recent time when I had felt a bit uneasy over my own actions. I was sitting in the public eating area taking full advantage of a much-needed opportunity to vent to a trusted friend some of my supposedly well-justified frustration over an incident at work. I was kind of harsh, certainly critical, and I probably sounded pretty mean. I remembered feeling sheepish when the man at the table next to us finished his lunch and left. I wondered how much he had overheard and was embarrassed that I would be so vocal in a public place about such private feelings.

Luckily, that man hadn’t called me to come to his office, but I had called my offender, and he was coming right away. By the time he arrived, my attitude had changed, and my great hope was simply to listen to his feelings if he cared to shared them, to try to understand, and maybe even to help.

He remembered well the conversation in which he had fumed with his friends over lunch. When I told him I had some interest in the matter he was discussing, and wondered if he would mind sharing his feelings with me, he became very apologetic and quickly confessed that he was wrong to have spoken out as he did.

I thought of myself in similar circumstances and told him sincerely that I understood how he must be feeling. As long as he had no legitimate reason to complain and was not just a mean person, we could just set it aside and get to know each other. He turned out to be a great guy and one upon whom our office could call for future help. I made a new friend, and, I hope, so did he.

As we steer about in the bumper-car ride of life, we cannot avoid every collision. Some are purely accidental, some may be a bit calculated, but most fender benders are the result of simple human frailty and miscalculation. I may bump into you, you’ll probably bump into me a time or two, but hopefully no one will be hurt and we can just learn from the experience. Maybe we can even make a new friend in the process.

Most offense is unintentional. If we really knew the offender, he or she would likely be a friend.


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