I’m still upset from my morning encounter with my wife, and I mutter to myself, as my face tics and my hands clench the steering wheel tightly. Stupid. I’m so stupid. How could I be so dumb? How could I be so impatient with her? So rude? All she wanted to do was talk to me. Why couldn’t I just be civil, at the very least? It was those damn’ clothes. I was confused. I felt like shit. Why didn’t I put my clothes in order, like I’m supposed to? I know better. Lazy. I’m just lazy. And I probably stink, now. Am I even wearing clean clothes? Or will I smell like a laundry basket, just like I did that time, a couple of weeks ago, when everybody was making comments about me smelling like I just got back from a five-mile run. They were saying it all to my face, and I didn’t even get their meaning till the end of the day. I can’t even do that right. I was mortified that day. I don’t want to be mortified again.
A low-flying bird swoops across my path, its wings just brushing my windshield. On better days, I’d start and brake or swerve, but today I’m so slowed down, so preoccupied, it barely registers until it’s passed. My attention is locked on my drive. I motor across the countryside, barely noticing anything outside the chatter in my mind, the undifferentiated waves of sound washing past, and the feel of the car thrumming around me.
I gradually settle into the flow of traffic, relieved that the dance of passing, turning, braking, accelerating is getting my mind off my discomfort. I’ve always been a good driver, and the rules of the road have always made sense to me. The one thing that actually lets us all drive and kill each other, is our collective agreement to abide by the rules of the road. My partner calls me a “stickler” for these rules. Even when I’m the only one on a road for miles around, I still keep neatly in the center of my lane, regardless of whether there are potholes or rough grade. The very thought of drifting closer to the center line or crossing it for no reason makes me anxious, even if I can see ahead and behind on a straight, open road, and there’s not another vehicle in sight for miles.
It’s not that I’m OCD about it. It’s not that I’m trying to control everyone around me. It’s not that my thinking is black-and-white and there’s no nuance to be found. It’s just that deviating from the rules – improvising, making it up as I go along – takes time and effort and cognitive resources. Those are resources I often don’t have, especially when my senses are out of whack or pinging off the charts, like today. It sounds bizarre to some, but the very idea of not sticking to known rules with known (or reasonably expected outcomes) sometimes makes me feel physically ill, and my head starts to spin. But when I do stick to the rules – and people around me do, as well, it not only simplifies matters, but also makes it easier for me to think about more than just what to do next – and what-will-happen-if…
So, no, I don’t love rules for the sake of controlling others or even myself. I love rules for the relief they give me. They spare me from needing to rethink how everything is supposed to work, and what I can expect to result from a certain pattern of choices and actions. They let me devote needed energy to thinking about things that have really already been decided.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares my devotion to the rules of the road. And it’s a source of continuous frustration. Especially today. Someone a few cars ahead of me (who clearly has the right-of-way) brakes abruptly to allow a driver on a side street into the flow of traffic, and a quick flush of anger courses through me. My heart rate jumps, and my head spins as I stop just short of the back bumper of the car in front of me. People do this all the time, especially during morning rush hour, and it really upsets me. It’s dangerous. Everybody is safer when we all play by the same rules. It’s not up for discussion, and it’s not open to interpretation. It’s a rule. And someone isn’t following it – so how am I supposed to know what happens next? I forcibly put aside the complaints and train my attention on the road in hopes of settling my mind, but my gut is still tight, and my heart is still pounding.
As the flow of traffic resumes ahead of me, I don’t look around. I keep my gaze fixed ahead, turning only slightly when I check the mirrors. My neck is stiff, and my back is, too. I turn on some music – one of the two CDs I listen to, over and over again. I have a little portable CD player I plug into my car radio, so I can listen to my CD collection without needing to by an in-dash CD player. I don’t need a whole sound system. I only really listen to the same 2 CDs. Their rhythms are familiar, comforting, and that’s really all I need, this morning. Just some comfort. Some predictability in the course of my unpredictable, destabilizing day.