Traffic as a metaphor for life

Confession: for the last four years I haven’t had to deal with a lot of traffic because I’ve been walking a few blocks to work. So, this metaphor may be a bit stale and you should probably conclude before reading any further that I have no idea what I’m talking about.

After all, a lot has changed has changed in the last four years. The President is no longer Obama; now we have Trump. ISIS was (not?) defeated. Avicii died. China grew. And other things happened, too. If so much has changed, perhaps all has changed, including traffic.

Though, at least some fundamentals of traffic have perhaps not changed. After all, we still have it. This is at least true in the Bay Area, LA, New York and DC. There may still be traffic in areas outside of those places as well, but I wouldn’t know firsthand since I’ve spent the vast majority of the last four years in those places. I know autonomous vehicles are supposed to fix this (or make it worse), but they haven’t yet. Nor has the Boring Company had any impact outside making their flamethrowers and the not one, but two fire extinguishers they recently sent me. What the heck is going on?

The world is radically changing but we still have traffic and it has, perhaps, not really changed very much at all because it still exists even though it theoretically perhaps shouldn’t exist anymore. And it is in this unchanging changing that my metaphor begins.

I think traffic is a great metaphor because while I don’t experience it very much any more (and one of the last times I did I smashed my car to the tune of many, many benjamins), most people still do. Traffic is as expected and natural in our lives today as death and taxes.

We, meaning society and not myself since I encounter little traffic, spend so much more time in traffic than we would like. Studies show that traffic and long commutes reduce happiness, so it is no surprise that we tend to try to avoid it.

The traffic problem is so pronounced in Los Angeles that the flexible work schedule was invented there mostly to help people avoid it. The app Waze, which was popularized in the US after viral usage growth also in Los Angeles, made their Israeli founders a bajillion dollars by also helping people avoid traffic. Clearly we don’t like traffic. So traffic is a thing we encounter and try to avoid because we don’t like it, but what is it really?

Traffic is suffering. The Buddha said life is suffering, and inevitable. Traffic is as inevitable as life’s suffering. The Buddha’s solution to eliminating suffering is essentially complete withdrawal from the world and existence. One could avoid traffic by similar means but, short of enlightenment, the inevitably, in practice, holds. Most of us can’t eliminate traffic from our lives, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

If someone’s life has no traffic they are rich, powerful or lucky. Money and influence indubitably expand the traffic avoidance toolkit. If you’re really rich you can just helicopter around to avoid traffic. If you’re a CEO you might put your office right next to your house at the expense of others’ commute time, though I most definitely do not encourage or condone this. If you’re a politician you can have the police or military point guns at people to not so subtly signal that they should get out of the way. The result, as I once witnessed firsthand, is a remarkable parting of the traffic sea. These are admittedly extremes.

In reality most people, including many but certainly not all normal ones, whatever ‘normal’ means, can in the long term design life around avoiding the suffering of traffic. For a wide range of reasons varying from not having true flexibility in where to work or live to simple lifestyle choices, people either can’t or simply won’t. In the short term however a segment of the population fights traffic on a daily basis while others simply don’t.

I posit that there are two types of people in the world: those who stay in their lane, and those who don’t. If you don’t know what I mean, drive on Interstate 10 in Los Angeles during rush hour one day. For those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, let me illustrate the two types.

Some people treat driving in traffic like it’s a racing game of sorts. In LA, that’s a lot of people. Los Angeles rush hour traffic is notoriously stop and go when not simply stopped. It’s hard to change lanes when traffic has completely stopped. But when the wheels are rolling even a little bit, opportunities present themselves. All of the lanes are never quite moving at the same speed. Some people are constantly cutting from slower to faster lane, weaving through traffic. I call these people the lane changers.

The lane-changers are an interesting breed. On some level, they may know they are beholden to the Google Maps traffic predictions and that no matter their slipperiness through other cars, they’ll get wherever they’re going at more or less the same time. Surely they must know that gains are only marginal at best. Yet, that does not stop them one bit. Boldness admittedly varies amongst them; some are more aggressive while others are a bit more sheepish, but none lacking in spirit. Some lane changers probably do save a bit of time on their commutes, but most probably don’t.

Warning: like in most games, most who play lose. The efforts of some lane changers will actually extend their commute. Cut into the wrong lane and you may hit a dreaded stop. Having an SUV to see above other cars can mitigate this somewhat because you can see further ahead, but ultimately lanes, like most of our world, speed and slow to the tune of their own song, not ours. Collecting the tears of sullen lane changers caught in the wrong lane watching others go by could perhaps cure California of its droughts. Is the risk of losing a minute worth than of gaining a minute? On an expected return basis it may not be, but I don’t think it’s on such a cold and calculated basis that people the determination of whether to fight the good traffic fight.

The non-lane changers sacrifice thrill and the upside or saving precious seconds or minutes on their commute for relative peace and consistency. They get on the highway, pick a lane, and go with the flow, changing lanes only when they need to take an exit. If their lane stops while the one next to them is still moving, they just kinda chill. It’s boring, yet effective. ‘Everyone is going to the same place and potential time savings are more than canceled out by potential time losses,’ these wise people maybe be thinking. I wouldn’t really know; I’m a lane changer. What is it that really sets the lane changers and the non-lane changers apart?

To change lanes, or not to change lines? This is the ultimate question. You may find my claim far fetched, but it’s not, because the battle over changing lanes it is the battle over free will itself. The lane changers are those who constantly try to exercise their free will, battling traffic’s determinism. To them, the driving time estimate in Google Maps is foe, not fact. That’s the hurdle the world has set and the aim is to clear it. A fighting spirit rests at the core of the human spirit and to fight is to be free. Modern society holds the free will rooted in classical liberalism as the highest value of humanity, so why aren’t we all lane changers?

Cognitive scientists, rooted in an understanding of the world assuming the sanctity of the scientific method, tell us that free will is a mere illusion; a feeling, an abstraction — nothing more. Perhaps it is. Perhaps free will is not real in the way our bodies are, or in the way a stone is a real. This may resonate with those who don’t change lanes for perfectly rational reasons. But, if it feels real while maybe not being real in an abstract or intellectual sense, isn’t that enough? With the discovery or newfound belief, if any distinction exists between the two, in the deterministic and random nature of the universe, should we all simply hang our heads in acceptance of what will inevitably be? Perhaps you think I’ve taken this too far, and lane changing has nothing to do with free will.

Perhaps the lane changers are just impatient. Patience is a virtue, after all, says society. I do believe patience can be instrumental in the exercise of free will and in the battle to end life’s suffering, but I sometimes fear we have too much of it. So many argue that acceptance, patience taken to its limit, is the answer. Well, it’s an answer. But, is it the right one?

I think acceptance is lazy and it’s clearly not what most us really want. In the long run we’re all dead, yet few of us sit around waiting to die. If you don’t believe in reincarnation, the end to the Buddha’s suffering is just a matter or waiting or — worse, no need to go there. Whatever we say, our actions make clear that we value our agency. If we’re too patient we’ll lose that. I’m not saying all patience is bad and that impatience is good, but in accepting our world we must not forget the part we play in it.

Imagine a world with no traffic: sounds pretty great. Then imagine the misery of bumper to bumper, stop and go Los Angeles traffic. Once we achieve the former, with self-driving cars or whatnot, we must not forget about the latter. The desire for the former is as much a part of humanity as the reality of the latter. Without the latter, the former has no meaning. We must, after all, strive for something.

In a world where many argue we should accept fate and inevitably for what they are, the lane changers may not be the most popular. But imagine a world without them. If nobody had ever tried to get home a little faster, we wouldn’t have even had cars in the first place. If we took to heart the ethos of acceptance, faced with a stop in traffic we’d perhaps just turn the engines off and go to sleep. Surely, this is not our ideal.

Humanity is about moving forward, or at least feeling like we’re moving forward. We may never eliminate all suffering but that’s probably good because if we did, what would we do? Traffic on the other hand will probably soon be gone, but we must not forget its lessons.

The lane changers may not actually be saving any time. On some level, their will to fight the inevitability of traffic congestion is in vain. They almost certainly feel more disappointment than the non-lane changers. But disappointment only sweetens success. Life, our perceptions of it subjective by nature, must be about feelings as much as ‘fact.’ From firsthand experience, I can tell you that fighting that good traffic fight feels quite fun. No matter the day’s outcome, success or failure, it makes you feel alive. And what is the point of living, and humanity, if not to feel alive?


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