At the edge of the city is a company that designs information systems for many of the world's subways and trains. I go there once a week to teach English to their computer engineers. That's when I saw her. She was standing in the road and she had her thumb in the air.
Even though my foot kept a steady - in fact, increasing - pressure on the gas, my mind tried to make the hyper jump to analyze the situation. Maybe I hadn't sipped enough green tea before leaving home because the best my brain could come up with that morning was something better suited to slow and deliberate problem solving than on-the-fly decision making.
Oh, there's a lady. And look, she's hitching for a ride. I wonder where she's going. I'd have to swerve across three lanes to go over and pick her up. Could be kinda dangerous. Should I pick her up? I don't even know where she wants to go. I don't even know her. What would I say to her?
I kept on driving.
And then came the question: why?
The tagline from the 1986 horror flick The Hitcher came back to me in a flash: Never Pick Up A Stranger. I saw that movie one Friday night in high school with a bunch of my football buddies. Of course we garishly laughed our way through all the absurd gore and nightmarish on-screen jitters it threw at us. But privately, I think it royally scared the crap out of every single one of us.
So maybe I was afraid this lady would turn out to be some psychopathic man-eater who'd shred me to bits with power tools and have me for breakfast.
Or was it because I have always heard - and therefore just accepted as true - one should never do such things? Are you wearing clean underwear today?
So that got me thinking about how often I do things (or not) because "that's how things are done" without really stopping to ask 'why'.
- Be polite.
- Be a good neighbor.
- Do what's expected of you.
- Follow tradition.
- Don't rock the boat.
- Mind your manners.
- Don't step out of line.
- Do unto others...
- Mind your own business (this one I might actually agree with).
- Do the right thing.
- Always say 'Thank you'.
- Always say 'Please'.
- Always say you're sorry.
- Don't waste food.
- DON'T WRITE IN ALL CAPITALS, ESPECIALLY EMAILS
- Say "cheese".
- Eat all your peas.
I watched the hitcher in my rearview mirror. Her head swiveled and she watched me for several long seconds, probably wondering what's he afraid of?
I don't know. Chainsaws, maybe? I hadn't yet entertained the idea of getting caught up in some dark, international espionage ring, but why not? Interpol is just down the road.
So if you're hitching through Lyon and a guy drives by in a '99 Renault Scénic and doesn't stop, it might be me. I'd love to give you a ride. Really I would.
But until I work out how to switch off this stinking auto pilot and make bona fide choices untainted by social norms and conventions, chances are good I'll just keep on going.