Caught In Traffic

Rev. Jonathan Mitchell

Wayfarers Chapel

Rancho Palos Verdes, California

April 15, 2007

Isaiah 35:8-10

Luke 10:25-37

I often try to console those who arrive late for events here by saying that there are two big obstacles to getting to Wayfarers Chapel—they're called the 405 and the 110!

I don't know about you, but I usually don't do very well with being caught in traffic. And I am often incredulous as to how much "traffic" there is in my life in a broader sense. I am amazed at how much time I spend packing stuff up at home, loading it in my car, taking it to work, unpacking it in my office, packing it up at the end of work, loading it in my car, driving it home, unpacking it. Next day, pack it up... Take out the dishes, serve supper, clean the dishes, put them away, take them out, serve supper... (I do love to eat, but every day?) Wear clothes, get them dirty, wash the clothes, wear them, get them dirty, wash them... Sometimes it seems life is all about moving stuff around, back and forth, forth and back.

It is possible to get metaphysical about this and come to the realization that the entire universe is really just a lot of traffic. Michael Frayn does just that in a book called The Human Touch Here's a sample.

[I]t's difficult to have the quiet and also keep the city, because the city isn't a collection of buildings among which the traffic moves; the city is the traffic. The endless stream of cars and buses represents the movement of people to and from the encounters that constitute the fabric of their lives. The jams and gridlocks are the tangles that all movement and interchange involve, the choking exhaust gases the emanations from the consumption of energy necessary for all activity....

The bulk of [the traffic] is out of sight — the business for which all those journeys are undertaken: the confrontation of buyers and sellers in the shops, the exhortation of the sellers, the alternating caution and recklessness of the buyers, the contracts, the phone calls, the money in the cash dispensers, the hooting, the rage, the tiredness, the crime. The streets and the buildings they lead to are merely conduits of all this. They are the tidemarks left by the current...[pp. 20-21.]

If I wanted to, I could push this line of thought to the end, and talk about how ultimately it all dissolves into the lightning fast movements of quantum mechanical paricles/waves, an effervescent froth of matter and energy in motion, made up mostly of empty space. But I'll spare you that.

One of the by-products of the "traffic" of our cities is garbage. I have here today a book-long poem on the subject. In it A. R. Ammons makes a startling statement about garbage, but one that I think is true. As he drives down the I-95 in Florida, he sees a bulldozer piling up a heap of garbage and is inspired to write:

garbage has got to be the poem of our time because

garbage is spiritual, believable enough

to get our attention, getting in the way, piling

up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and

creamy white: what else deflects us from the

errors of our delusionary ways, not a temptation

to trashlessness, that is too far off, and

anyway, unimaginable, unrealistic...

I never thought of garbage as spiritual before I read this poem, but I think he's right. Anything that gets us to look at the actual concrete consequences of what we are doing, and helps us to see "the errors of our delusionary ways" is far more spiritual than any amount of sweet thought and misty feeling. In Swedenborg's writings the 'spiritual' is that which puts us into contact with the truth about ourselves. It doesn't have to be pretty.

Something similar can be said of traffic in the automotive sense. Traffic is actually, I've come to believe, a teacher, and if we are open to it, a spiritual friend.

For years freeway traffic has seemed to me a particularly vivid teaching illustration for the inner workings of hell. Because the excruciating paradox of bad traffic on the freeways is that while nobody likes it, nobody wants it, and nobody is trying to create it, nevertheless we all somehow manage to create it for each other and therefore for ourselves. In our impatience and irritation with the other drivers, in our desire to get the better of them, or if not that, then at least in our desire not to be gotten the better of ("O-oh no, don't you dare, I've already let three people in, it's my turn now!" hands gripping the steering wheel, eyes staring forward refusing to make eye contact... "I'm not going to let any space open up between me and the car in front in me!")——in all that we help to create the very misery from which we ourselves suffer. It's Hell!

A couple years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Cindy Gutfeld preach a sermon on creating heaven on earth. And what was one of her most vivid illustrations? Being caught in traffic! Cindy was particularly eloquent and lucid on the spiritual choice we face whenever we find ourselves caught in traffic. We can see the other drivers as being in our way, or we can see them as fellow human beings who are experiencing the same distress as we are. Fellow human beings or obstacles in our way. In that choice of spiritual outlooks lies the difference between living in Heaven and living in Hell.

For the Swedenborgian tradition, heaven and hell are first and foremost mental/emotional states. To see our fellow human beings primarily as obstacles in our way, to want to get the better of them, to want to beat them out, is already to live in Hell spiritually. And acting on that attitude, of course, helps to manifest Hell outwardly. Conversely, to see those around us as fellow human beings, to see ourselves as all being in the same boat, to greet each other on the journey, is already to be in Heaven spiritually. And again, acting on that attitude helps Heaven to manifest in the world around us. I still remember the joyful, playful spirit with which Cindy described relaxing in the traffic jam, smiling and waving at those in the adjacent lanes as the cars passed and repassed each other. Other people got caught up in the spirit, waved back, "Good to see you again!"

Traffic of all kinds makes up perhaps the larger part of our daily lives, commuting, shopping, standing in line, phoning, emailing, cooking, cleaning, paying bills... In the course of all the busyness (and business) that our "chores" can create, we run into our fellow human beings. Are they obstacles in our way? Or are they people just like ourselves, with their own joys and stresses? Spiritually, it's our choice. Let's all just relax. Let's all take a deep breath, let it out slowly, smile, wave to each other, and let a little heaven enter our lives.

Afterword, June 2008

As I write this sermon up, a year plus after delivering it, we are experiencing gas prices above $4.50 per gallon, and I am learning the basic techniques of "hypermiling", driving practices designed to improve gas milage. I was starting to do some of this before I ever came across the word, and don't get me wrong, I'm only using the basic technigues. As always, safety first! I am finding I really can stretch out a tank of gas by obeying speed limits, accelerating ever so gradually, and avoiding the breaks as much as it is safe to. Doing the latter involves keeping a good distance between me and the car in front of me, and taking the foot off the gas as soon as I see a stop sign or red light.

As I do this, I am observing in myself a very tight loop between behavior and attitude. As I slow down, I relax. As I relax, I slow down. (As I was doing some file purging recently, I came across some stress reduction tips for long-term caregivers, from a workshop I attended 15 years ago. Among the tips: drive less often, drive more slowly when you do.)

The resulting style, behaviorally and emotionally, is one of smoothly rolling along. So what if it takes a little longer. So what if people impatiently pass me and cut in again—better they be in front of me. If I come up upon someone driving more slowly than I, I slow down. They are helping me save gas. One of my biggest inhibitions about slowing down, I have found, (apart from its feeling a bit weird) is not wanting the drivers behind me to be mad, or to think I'm nuts. But if the driver in front of me is slowing me down, hey, it's not my fault!

In following web links about hypermiling, I came across a longish but fascinating discussion of traffic jams called, Traffic Wave Experiments. In a very clear and detailed way it explains how traffic jams form, how they sustain themselves, and the conditions under which they dissolve. The author, William Beaty, follows up with driving techniques you can use to help clear the jams. Interesting in its own right, it also by way of analogy ("correspondence" for you Swedenborg fans) spells out in much more detail than I do above the workings of heaven and hell, and how easy it can be for even a single angel to still dispel a lot of dysfunction. I recommend it to any student of heaven and hell.