They don’t care what side of the bed you woke on. They don’t care that you even woke on a bed. They are indifferent to your social status, financial means, gender orientation, political or religious views, or the color of your collar or skin.
They couldn’t care less whether you’re in a hurry or enjoying the slow pace of a casual day. As a matter of fact, they don’t care about you at all, because they can’t care at all. They are neutral to such things, unbiased. Fair. Yet I find that I’m still annoyed by them, their tri-colored rainbow display, especially the red one.
I’m too old for road rage. Outgrew it. And that’s a smart thing, because gone are the days of hootin’ and honkin’ and hollerin’ and wavin’ a finger out the window, when both parties would drive away satisfied and go on about their day. But these days, you never know what the other driver might do, and they don’t know what you might do. But that’s another kind of traffic story. Let’s stick to traffic lights.
The mid-sized metro area I live near is often referred to as stoplight city. The “expressway” they built years ago has been the subject of ridicule for years. There is nothing express about it, other than the expressive outbursts of those who drive it, and not necessarily because of other drivers, but because of the stoplights.
Have you ever got around that one car you tried desperately for miles to pass? You’re finally cruising through light after green light, then it happens. You hit a red. You look for that other driver in the rear-view mirror and realize your hard-earned skill at the wheel is about to earn you the title of loser, capital ‘L’. Out of the corner of your eye, the other car creeps up slowly with the cool, calm cockiness of the turtle who beat the hare. Frustration sets in. Maybe a tinge of embarrassment. Certainly defeat. But you’re not mad at them. It’s the stoplight.
Stoplights don’t care. Everything resets. The urban leveler.
Recently I’ve become aware that stoplights are a good indicator of what’s going on inside of me. A litmus test of my heart’s current state, my soul’s posture. Seems a little deep for something as inanimate as an electric light, I know, but stay with me.
My typical daily commute consists of a 24-mile route governed by 20 stoplights each way, or roughly one stoplight for every mile. On one particular morning, I met 17 red lights, 13 of them back to back. I must’ve looked like a maniac, slapping my hands against the wheel at every stop, uttering the more unsophisticated highlights of the urban dictionary all the while. Thankfully the windows were up.
Had I been running late for an important meeting, my attitude might have been justified, or at least understandable. Or maybe not. But that’s just it. I wasn’t late for anything. I could’ve hit all 20 stoplights and still had time to spare. So why the frustration? Why the impatience? Why do stoplights feel so intrusive? It’s just a stupid light, after all!
Why do I long for the stretch of road that does not hinder my forward progress, does not delay the time clock ticking in my subconscious, even when—especially when—I’m not in a hurry? Or am I? That bothered me.
What is it about stoplights that expose something deeper? Does a part of us feel slighted? Forced? Controlled? Under authority? Held back from reaching our destination (or at least delaying it)?
Unless we get into a habit of running red lights, which will only complicate matters, we are subjected to abide by the traffic lights—and stop.
By my own research, the average stoplight cycles every 60 to 120 seconds. That’s not a long time—unless you’re counting each second—and hoping to catch the driver ahead of you. So is it simply the nature of our fast-paced culture that promotes frustration at the bright red hand-in-the-face dangling outside our windshield? Modern society does, after all, confess it has a real problem waiting on EVERYTHING, and we seem rather proud of it.
And why do stoplights unsettle us more than stop signs? Shouldn’t we dislike stop signs more, since they always require us to stop? Could it be that stop signs don’t bother us as much because everyone must stop, and we all must wait our turn in a loosely put together first-come-first-serve kind of order?
When it comes to stoplights, every red we hit means someone else gets a green, and I think we don’t like that. Others getting ahead. Us remaining behind.
It might help to ponder, that unless we’re in an auto race, we’re not in a race. The road is meant to be shared—life, that is—equally, and sometimes preferring each other, lest we cause congestion. Maybe we like stop signs better because every now and then somebody waves us through, even when they got there first. Or maybe we wave them through, and we feel good about that. We don’t waive people through stoplights.
Forced at a stoplight for a minute or two isn’t such a bad thing. We can count each breath. Find our heart’s beat. Recognize the disturbance in us. Recognize that we have a disturbance in us, and come to terms with it. And be thankful, for something.
And don’t worry about the driver who ran the red and got ahead of you. You’ll likely catch him at the next one.