I was sitting at the metering light at the on-ramp this morning after I dropped my son at school. I had inched my way to the second position. There were two cars in front of me and one car to my right. As soon as the light changed, the two cars in front of me lurched forward as it was their turn to enter the highway. Then I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. The driver in the car that had been next to me decided he’d waited long enough and was merging onto the highway with the other two cars. I see this occur at least twice a day in my travels, and it happens so frequently that I expect it. The metering lights, which are meant to stagger the plethora of cars merging onto the crowded interstate, seem to be optional these days. I shook my head, waited my turn as I always do, and then entered the highway when the light became green.
I’ve tried to eliminate as many fucks as possible from my change purse. I’ve tried to stop caring about jerks who refuse to believe the rules apply to them. I have not been successful. Every time I get into my car, I get triggered by the effrontery of people who decline to abide by the conventions put in place to keep everyone safe and moving in traffic. It irks the shit out of me. There aren’t enough vials of lavender essential oil, cups of chamomile tea, burning aromatherapy candles, or warm neck wraps in the world to relieve me of the tension I feel around Americans who think the rules, whether they be traffic-related or queue-related or common-decency-related, do not apply to them. The “me first” mindset is pervasive and toxic. When there is no perceived negative consequence, people do whatever they damn well please. Their mothers must be so proud.
This morning, as I stewed for the remainder of my thirty minute commute home, I began thinking about American exceptionalism. I understand what the term entails. It refers to the idea that America, with her ideals and her political system and her geography and abundant natural wealth, is a shining city on a hill, an example of the best a nation can be. Here is what I decided about American exceptionalism these days. America has the potential to be exceptional, when we all work together in our democracy and play by the rules. As it stands now, however, we’ve devolved into a country filled with individuals who believe they are exceptional and the exception to the rule. We’ve become so focused on the individual and individual freedoms that we’ve sacrificed the idea of “one nation indivisible” for it. We can’t agree on anything. Believing in the concept of American exceptionalism doesn’t make us exceptional. History is peppered with examples of city-states that believed they were getting it all right. They no longer exist.
Social psychologist Jonathon Haidt hit the nail on the head in an article in The Atlantic on April 11th: “It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history.” It’s this type of righteous mindset that has led us to the place we are now, where every faction and every individual within that faction believes they have cornered the market on what is best and on what they deserve. We’ve become a nation of petulant children, throwing tantrums while doing whatever we want and hiding behind the talking points of freedom and the First Amendment. We’ve forgotten how to adult, how to put on our grown up panties and accept that we can’t always have our way. We tell our bickering children to follow the rules, to play nice, and to compromise, but I’m not confident we’re capable of those things. How can we be a shining example when we can’t even clean up our own house?
I’m not saying that folks who ignore the on-ramp metering are destroying the fabric of our society. I’m afraid it may be a little too late for that.