I can’t stand it when other drivers merge at the very last possible second.
Recently my husband Ryan and I were inching along on 35W near downtown Minneapolis, our hometown. I was driving, and had diligently placed us in the slowest and most popular lane, the middle lane, because this is the lane you need to be in if you want merge onto 94W. As we edged along with the other 94W-bound people, I prided myself in the fact that I was being safe by allowing two cars’-length of space between my vehicle and that of the person in front of me. (As it turns out, this is something you should never do if you loathe last-minute mergers.)
Suddenly, just as we were finally entering the split between 35W and 94W, a turquoise Ford Fiesta with a busted left brake light came hustling by in the fast-moving lane to our left. Immediately upon passing us, the car made a clean, quick dart to the right, settling casually into my precious safety space. The driver tapped the right-hand turn signal exactly once, when the car was already ¾ of the way into the lane, an oh-so-thoughtful gesture I’ve come to call ‘afterthought signaling.’
My ire was immediate, and Ryan got to hear the brunt of it all. I’ll tone it down for the listening audience. “Thanks, buddy! (Why are they always ‘buddy’?) Two miles ago there was a sign indicating that you need to be in this lane if you want to get onto 94W! And you’re just going to swoop in at the very last second? You could at least spare me the afterthought signaling; I cannot handle the nonchalant entitlement!”
My unquestioned conviction was that this person had chosen to stay in the fast-moving lane until the very last minute, at which time he willfully invaded, indeed preyed upon, the beautiful safety bubble of an innocent, unsuspecting, and highly conscientious driver. Me.
After a few minutes of fuming, Ryan gently asked if I had noticed the car’s Nevada license plate. No, I had not. Then he tentatively wondered out loud if maybe this person was navigating unfamiliar roads, and simply didn’t realize until rather late that he needed to get on 94W, or needed to be in the middle lane to do so. And then he wondered whether the afterthought signaling didn’t communicate entitlement, but rather, embarrassment.
Ryan’s “let’s-give-this-guy-the-benefit-of-the-doubt” musings didn’t sit well with me at first. But later on, after some time to reflect, I realized I had immediately presumed the worst of this last-minute merger from Nevada. I’d been sure he was engaging in rank, and probably premeditated, @$$holery.
And maybe he was. Perhaps, though, there was something else going on. Was Ryan right that he was simply taken by surprise by the middle-lane requirement for getting on 94W because he was traversing unknown highways? Or maybe he was distracted because he was thinking about how he was going to say goodbye to his dying grandmother whom he was visiting from out-of-state. Perhaps he merged at the last minute because he knew it meant five fewer minutes he’d have to endure the excruciating pain in his right hip, made almost unendurable by sitting upright. What if he’d been daydreaming about his new sweetheart whom he was visiting, and simply failed to pay attention to the road signs two miles back?
Twentieth-century activist, philosopher, and Christian mystic Simone Weil is famous for her writings on the unknowability of God. But she also talked a lot about the unknowability of other people.
Justice. To be continually ready to admit that another person is something other than what we read when [they are] there (or when we think about [them]). Or rather: to read in [them] also (and continually) that [they are] certainly something other than what we read—perhaps something altogether different.
We “read” others as best we can, but our interpretations are often woefully wrong. Weil believed justice depends on our constant awareness of the always partial, and sometimes totally mistaken, nature of our knowledge of other people. What is required instead, according to her, is attention—a curious, open-handed, and open-hearted attitude wherein we wait to be surprised by the other person, and wherein we militantly monitor and curb our natural eagerness to prejudge and categorize. This kind of attention is political because it immediately humanizes and dignifies the other person rather than confining her to the violence of a predetermined cast. It is spiritual because it recognizes the other person as an image or reflection of Ultimate Mystery.
There’s a great deal of talk among today’s theologians of apophaticism, defined generally as conscious knowledge of one’s own lack of knowledge with respect to God. Apophaticism means admitting that, when it comes to God, what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know. Weil’s writings suggest that we might also consider the importance of something like an everyday apophaticism – an awareness of and reverence for the mystery all around us here and now, especially in the faces and stories of other people. Whether or not they are behaving badly, we never really know what other people are going through. Pleasant people are often laboring through vast deserts of inward fear and sorrow. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Jesus insisted that we not judge others (Matt. 7:1-5).
Everyday apophaticism means attending to people with patient openness, with unassuming hospitality—in other words, with attention in Weil’s sense of the word. It means suspending our compulsion to categorize and capture others. It means curbing our habitual presumption and pretense. It means being critical of our inner snap judgments, whether they are positive or negative. It means admitting, not without a sense of awe, that the other person is “something other than what we read—perhaps something altogether different” (Weil). This kind of attention is both incredibly difficult and incredibly needed—especially in our current political climate, which threatens to pollute our hearts with toxic suspicion and dehumanizing hatred.
I’m sorry, Mr. Nevada. I don’t know who you are, what you’ve been through, or what you were going through a couple of weeks ago when you cut in front of me on the highway. You’re a living story in progress, and you have traumas, loves, and hopes that I know nothing of. I’m still annoyed by what you did. But I recognize and honor the beautiful unknown that defines your being, and the Holy Mystery that it reflects.
 The Notebooks of Simone Weil. 2 vols. Arthur Wills, trans. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1956] (Dietz 1988, 133).