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Finding Sacred in a Busy Highway
We might not ever love gridlocked roads and aggressive drivers, but we can find something amazing in these unavoidable features of modern life.
Hello everyone, happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all having a great week and that you spit a word to ya mother on Sunday. This week’s Stuff is all about balancing our investment in ourselves and the collective good. Let’s get into it!
FROM THE AGES
“That which isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Jonathan Haidt on the sacredness of group communion:
“But we also have the capacity to transition, temporarily, to a higher collective plane, which Durkheim called the level of the ‘sacred.’ He said that we have access to a set of emotions that we experience only when we are part of a collective—feelings like ‘collective effervescence,’ which Durkheim described as social ‘electricity’ generated when a group gathers and achieves a state of union. (You’ve probably felt this while doing things like playing a team sport or singing in a choir, or during religious worship.) People can move back and forth between these two levels throughout a single day, and it is the function of religious rituals to pull people up to the higher collective level, bind them to the group, and then return them to daily life with their group identity and loyalty strengthened. Rituals in which people sing or dance together or chant in unison are particularly powerful.”
I recently found myself on a harrowing car trip through Los Angeles. We visited a close friend who, though I love him dearly, drives like a spoiled teenager who thinks himself invincible. To be fair, LA is a notoriously cutthroat place to drive and he was once a professional driver. This trip, however—with countless illegal turns, sudden lane changes, screeching corners, and plenty of horn-honking—was more befitting of a Hollywood chase scene than a ride home from the airport.
As I white-knuckled the door handle feeling a sense of guilt by association, the above Marcus Aurelius quote came to my mind. Each person has the capacity to be both an ardent individualist and a humble contributor to a collective goal. Depending on the context, we can be of two minds with completely separate motivations. Jonathan Haidt describes the phenomenon as the “hive switch.” His social psychology research finds that tapping into some piece of shared morality or a shared goal can throw a cognitive switch, shifting our focus from our individual needs to our group’s collective needs.
Driving on public roads is a beautiful example of our capacity for large-scale cooperation with strangers. A short drive through LA, or any major metropolis requires interaction with thousands of anonymous drivers. The fact that hundreds of millions of people navigate this arrangement every day without incident looks like a miracle until we examine what this requires from each individual involved.
A safe and effective public road system actually requires very little aside from the obvious infrastructure. Drivers only need to understand about a dozen essential rules (speed limits, lane lines, proper maneuvers, etc.) and develop a cursory mastery of a car in order to participate safely for a lifetime. Being a “good driver” has very little to do with your individual skill or the capabilities of your car.
Being a good driver requires a hive switch - the understanding that optimizing for collective success is the best way to ensure each individual’s success. When every driver keeps their speed and maneuvers within the predictable limits, traffic flows as it should and each individual arrives in a timely manner. A single illegal turn or sudden, unforeseen maneuver from the proverbial asshole causes dozens of other drivers to tense, slow, and take precautionary measures. This impedes the natural flow and can cause a downstream ripple of delays even hundreds of cars behind the incident. The speedster might arrive a few moments earlier, but they leave a trail of stressed-out drivers and slower traffic in their wake. When a critical mass of people put their needs first, we all suffer the consequences.
This is not to say that driving well requires a timid approach. Yielding at the wrong times is equally disruptive. Flow requires that each driver can predict the movements of the cars around them with relative certainty. This predictable cooperation requires as much assertion as it does caution. Maintaining traffic flow while entering a busy freeway often requires you to speed up to assert your presence into an opening rather than timidly waiting for someone to allow you in. As lanes merge, each driver needs to speed up or slow down based on their relative position to seamlessly stitch two rows into one. Being a “good,” predictable, and safe driver requires that you understand when each attitude will best contribute to the overall success.
Nearly every person alive today is part of a worldwide system of communication, commerce, and politics. Regardless of where you live and how heavily you participate in this interconnected global system, your lifestyle requires the contribution of thousands (possibly millions) of individuals that you will never meet. Your life also has the potential to touch millions of others without your ever knowing it.
Success, meaning, and health (and nearly every other positive life goal) require personal freedom and self-reliance. However, these come with a duty to maintain the resources and institutions that benefit all of us. No one would have the time or motivation to focus on themselves if not for the security and protection of our global systems. No one would be able to argue for their individual rights without the ideas of people who lived hundreds of years ago. I wouldn’t be able to express any of this without words and concepts invented by countless others. In a very real sense, there is no such thing as an individual.
Even if we could somehow meet our every need alone by creating some facsimile of modern life in complete isolation, we would never want to. Jonathan Haidt’s findings (and his above quote) draw on the work of 19th-century French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Both Haidt and Durkheim find numerous examples to support Durkheim’s original claim that there are realms of deeply positive human emotions that are only available to us while in communion with a group. This “collective effervescence” often defines experiences that people describe as sacred or transcendent. We feel that we are connecting to something greater than ourselves because, in fact, we are.
The ability to switch in and out of this “hive mind” is perhaps our most distinguishing characteristic as humans. We have the power to improve our individual lots in life, take control over our primal natures, and manifest countless positive changes in our lives. Yet, with the right conditions, we can focus beyond ourselves allowing all barriers to our fellow humans to melt away and collaborate for our collective benefit. The latter state, of “collective effervescence,” also brings us some of the deepest meaning that we will ever know.
While driving through LA might not ever be a spiritual experience, we can rest assured that the next asshole driver we encounter is actually hurting themselves more than they could ever harm us.