An annoying thing happened a few weeks ago in my admittedly old and beat up car: the horn went out.
I had accidently hit it early one cold morning pulling out of my driveway and it stuck—BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!!!!—for about thirty seconds. I frantically hit it over and over again to make it stop, which it did. And then sometime a few days later when I went to use it on purpose, nothing came out.
The horn was dead.
If you’ve ever driven in Austin, Texas, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how problematic this is. No one knows how to drive here. I mean, they closed the roads this month because of a millimeter of snow, literally. Everyone is way under the speed limit, all the time, and like all Southern drivers in my experience, regularly stop in the middle of roads for basically no explicable reason.
So you’d probably think—as I assumed—that this would be a nightmare for me.
But in fact it was the opposite. I’ve never felt so relaxed driving. I’ve never been pissed off less. I felt patient for a change.
Why? Because being pissed off isn’t an option. I just have to sit there. I don’t have a choice. And if I get angry, well it’s just me in the car yelling to myself…and that feels pretty ridiculous. Even the times when I wanted to get someone’s attention and couldn’t, I actually thought for a second: “I hope they don’t get embarrassed when they realize I’ve been waiting for them this whole time.” What???
Now obviously I need to go get this fixed, it simply isn’t safe to drive a car without a horn. Nor is it legal, I imagine. But in the meantime, I am enjoying it and reflecting on a simple fact: how often we use outlets for our emotions simply because they are available. We’re destructive or unhealthy often only because we can be—because it’s easy and we know we can get away with it.
As Louis CK put it, in our cars we seem to have a different set of values, values that apparently make it OK to be absolutely horrible towards other people. But that’s not the only place. Think about all the angry, vitriolic comments you read on the internet. People do it because they can. Because it’s anonymous and they know they won’t face any real consequences saying awful things to other people. There’s countless situations like this, we change our values because we have tacit permission to be terrible, and because no one will hold us accountable.
We tell ourselves that this is cathartic but it’s really not. Has anyone ever really felt better after punching a pillow? Or does this actually make us more angry? Does yelling really express your frustration or manifest more of it? Do you criticize the person you’re in a relationship with because it’s necessary or because it’s possible? Do you take advantage of people simply because you know you have power over them?
When deprived of these options, what do we do instead? Usually nothing. We ignore the temptation of those impulses. In the best cases, we’re left with feelings that we must address instead of blasting them at other people.
It’s a lesson all of us should consider whenever we lash out, get short, or angry with other people. Are we doing it out of genuine necessity, or are we doing it because in that context, we can? If it’s the latter, let’s question in it. Let’s ask if it’s really something we want to have in our lives and if we’d feel better if the “permission” was magically rescinded.
I think we would.