The American personality is not known for its patience. If anything, the opposite is true.
On the plus side, Americans get things done. On the not-so-plus side, impatience inherently lacks graciousness, and is ready to go to war against politeness.
Since mid-March, the pandemic has been a kind of forced march for Americans in patience.
The pandemic did not go away in a few weeks, as President Trump said it would. It has hung on and on and gotten worse during the past six months, to the point that it has caused the deaths at this writing of close to 200,000 Americans.
First there was the patience of going to the supermarket and not finding the milk or chicken or bathroom tissue you were looking for. Then there was the patience, if you had been laid off due to the pandemic, of waiting to be called back to work. Then there was the patience of awaiting the reopening of once-routine services such as barber shops and hair salons.
In Massachusetts, we still pretty much are waiting on the bars.
And there’s the patience that the pandemic has demanded in everyday transactions, such as ordering coffee for takeout or getting through the supermarket checkout line.
Cape Codders seem to have risen for the most part to the task. There is the sense of being in this all together, the kind of instinctive human social glue that you see arising on the deck of the doomed Titanic or in Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Many of us are giving others, whether we know them or not, a little more cushion in our dealings with them.
But get some of us behind the wheel of a pickup truck, SUV or sedan...and it can become a different story.
Of the drivers on our roads, a small but persistent minority are engaging in driving behavior that is obnoxious at best and dangerous at worst.
The odd thing is that the usual spur for this sort of behavior—the slow-moving traffic jam—is nearly nowhere to be found.
Drivers have plenty of room. Vehicles are moving along at the speed limit, or slightly above it. Local travel times actually are down, given the lack of congestion since the pandemic kicked in.
Consider this maneuver, reported by an Enterprise employee who had turned onto Route 28 from a parking lot and began driving the speed limit down the highway.
A large pickup truck pulled out behind and almost immediately began riding the driver’s tail.
Although the speed limit on this section of Route 28 is 50 miles per hour—and traffic was moving smoothly down the road—the pickup truck ended up crossing the double-yellow line into oncoming traffic to get around the car in front, then proceeded to cross back across the lane in front of the car before coming to a record stop a few seconds later at a looming traffic signal.
Or consider the numerous instances we’ve all seen where cars haven’t waited their turns at four-way intersections, or show a scary disregard for wandering over center lines.
On one hand, it doesn’t make any sense. Our lives in general have slowed down. There aren’t many places to go, but there’s plenty of time to get there.
On the other hand, it makes all the sense in the world. Even before the pandemic, getting behind the wheel of a vehicle—with its typically powerful engine in front and its protective steel all around you—was an unspoken place to release frustration.
Now, with frustration growing over the staying power of the pandemic, getting behind the wheel is a way to let out your tension.
If some reckless or inconsiderate motor vehicle operation slips in along the way, so be it. So what if you or someone else pays for a foolhardy move?
We need to watch our subconscious selves like hawks. At any given moment, we may feel relaxed…until we don’t. These months of the pandemic have wore into us, cutting into consideration we might otherwise show others.
For now, calm down. If you feel a distinct urge to emulate Mario Andretti or Jackie Stewart, don’t.
Give yourself some room from the vehicles around you, and keep an eye on oncoming traffic. The life you save may be your own.