We were heading to Nova Scotia, a long drive from Connecticut. My passenger, though in college, had almost no driving experience, but I was getting tired, and she kept begging me to let her drive my car. I finally relented when we reached Maine. An hour later, I was dozing, but some sense of danger must have penetrated the fog of my mind. Seconds later, I was wide awake, as a huge semi was crowding into us from the passenger side and she was doggedly trying to stay in her lane, which was shrinking fast. “Veer left, he’s going to hit us” I yelled. She screamed “I can’t go over the yellow line!” I grabbed the wheel from her, and steered out of our lane into the center lane. “What’s wrong with you, it’s just paint? You could have gotten us killed,” I replied after I managed to stop the car. That was practically the last time I let her drive on this trip.
This happened in 1973, and I still think of the lesson. The yellow lines mark your lane, and help keep you safe–until someone encroaches into the lane. Then the yellow line is just paint. But not to some people. My passenger was just someone who responded to my ad on a ride board. She fancied herself a rebel, cursed like one and dressed like one, but when our lives were in danger, she couldn’t even bring herself to drive over the paint. What did the painted lines mean to her, and what did her response to them say about the nature of her rebellion? The lesson I referred to above is really multiple lessons.
What “lines that should not be crossed” have you drawn in your own life? The alternative to drawing your lines in advance (of difficult moral decisions) is decision-by-expediency, i.e. reacting emotionally to circumstances rather than living by your principles. Expediency is driven by the “twin towers” of bad decisions–fear and anger. Fear of ridicule or looking stupid, fear of missing out on pleasure, anger over a perceived slight or insult, or even a real injury. No matter, decision-by-expediency = regret. If you haven’t drawn those “lines that should not be crossed”, what are you waiting for? What do you really believe in?
Once you decide to live within the “yellow lines” that either you have drawn, or which have been taught to you, how do you deal with someone crossing into your lane? In the case of my driving example, it was a simple decision–move over or be crushed. The issue was “how do we stay alive here”, not “who has right of way” or “what is his problem” or “doesn’t he see us?” Too often, we let emotions or extraneous questions (see my post of the Jack Reacher mind) or a “Pharisee” attitude get in the way of the real issue, which is “how then should I live/behave?”
With that in mind, let’s examine the obfuscations and confusions that get in the way of effective living with your lines:
1. I don’t even know what my yellow lines are. Then it’s time you found out what was taught to you and what you decided for yourself, so you can live according to what you really believe in.
2. I follow the rules! Sometimes you’re not even sure where these rules came from. Following rules because you think it makes you good, or simply because they are “rules”, is what I was calling the Pharisee mindset. That is “I want to look good on the outside regardless of what I stand for on the inside.” Matthew 23:25. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
3. I question other people’s motivations before I can act on my own beliefs. “Why did that person just do that?” “What does he mean by that?” Who cares? You’re getting caught up in the wrong things. Don’t let somebody else’s actions or words throw you off. Be like a gyroscope–don’t let anyone else or your own speculations throw you off, keep coming back to the balance point of what you stand for.
My main personal experience is this: In 1969 I was getting ready to be sent to Vietnam as an infantryman. The year before the massacre of unarmed villagers by U.S. troops at My Lai had been in the news, and I knew there were going to be some very morally ambiguous situations over there. I decided ahead of time if I don’t draw some lines I’m going to probably do something I will regret my whole life. One of the lines I drew was “I will not willingly kill or injure any noncombatants, no matter what pressures or emotions I am experiencing.” Sure enough, I was in a situation where I was tempted to fire on noncombatants, and it was probably the solid yellow, “uncrossable line” that I had established ahead of time that kept me from yielding to temptation.