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When I had to cross a river to get to my workplace, I often got to see rush hour traffic at its worst.
Often, I got to (literally) look down on the cars as I sat on public transit, moving along at an excellent clip while getting to enjoy some of the beautiful views. “This is the life,” I’d think, enjoying the pretty pink sunrise as I looked at the cars creeping forward on the next bridge. “I’m so glad that I’m free to read now, not stuck in a bubble of road rage and carbon emissions.”
My smug attitude got even worse when I biked across the bridge. Surrounded by fit people on fancy bikes, I looked over at the cars and rolled my eyes. “This is the life,” I thought to myself. “Exercising and saving the planet, all before I even get to work.”
And then I started to catch myself. This kind of holier-than-thou thinking isn’t good for me, and it definitely isn’t good for the people around me. In some parts of the FIRE world, compassion takes a back seat. But I don’t think that it has to be that way.
Compassion is Healthy
Here’s a link to an article indicating that compassion is not only helpful to others, it’s very healthy for the person who’s feeling it. Intuitively, this makes sense to me. In most situations, I feel better when I’m showing compassion for another person. If I think of other people as flawed, it’s a little easier for me to cope with my own shortcomings. There are certainly times when I’ve been rude or insensitive out of my own ignorance and pain. I hope that the people around me have been able to accept those instances as times when a flawed person behaved badly, not as examples of a terrible person being permanently terrible. I find it easy to feel compassion when people make small mistakes. With larger offenses, it’s a little harder to find compassion, but still definitely worthwhile.
Smugness Demonstrates Ignorance
Not only is being smug bad for me, it’s based on false assumptions. The first one is that I know everything that I could possibly need to know just based on the fact that the people I’m seeing are driving cars over a bridge in rush hour. This fact was brought home to me when I looked at a commuter map of my city.
The map was revealing. I immediately noted that people who live downtown tended to have a very short commute. People who live in wealthier neighborhoods that aren’t quite so close to the downtown area have slightly longer commutes. But who has the longest commutes? The people who live in the areas where the average income is the lowest.
I am fortunate enough to be able to structure my life around work. I can easily snag one of dozens of jobs in my area, and if I want to I can afford to live right next to where that job is. Now, I can’t easily afford to do so. If my husband and I wanted to rent a one-bedroom within walking distance of a building in one of the tonier neighborhoods, we’d probably have to pay at least twice what we’re paying now. But at least it would be a possibility.
In my old job, I regularly took the bus to work and the train home. It was fun, a great time to read the newspaper, and overall a great way to get back and forth. Then I got switched to a late shift, and I regularly got off work between eleven o’clock at night and one in the morning. At that point, I had to drive because it wasn’t safe for me to walk to and from the bus/commuter train stops. Also, I often left work after both had stopped running. The smug bike-commuter version of me might have looked at that woman driving to and from work and thought, “What a stupid person. Doesn’t she know that she should be driving to her office?” But the smug bike-commuter version of me would have been wrong.
One of the reasons I switched careers was because I didn’t want my schedule to be at the mercy of a randomly timed “shift bid” system, the way it was in my old job. Fortunately, I had the resources and education to make that career change.
There are lots of reasons that people drive instead of taking transit. Schedules, safety, childcare, illness, etc. That’s an argument for this city to do more to augment public transit options, fair wages, and housing affordability, but it’s an argument against turning up one’s nose at everyone who’s stuck on the bridge during rush hour.
The Five Reasons Practice
I do have a shortcut that helps me jump to a compassionate place when I’m tempted to get stuck in a small, smug way of thinking. One of my grad school classmates was a big believer in thinking of five reasons that a person might have for doing something before getting mad at the person. Now, ideally, one wouldn’t get mad at the person at all. But I find the “five reasons” practice to be a pretty good one. If I do it while I’m alone, it temporarily gets my mind off whatever annoyed me, and it’s kind of like a creative writing practice. If I do it with Mr. RN, we usually make ourselves laugh.
The other day, I was crossing the street at a three-way stop where a small street comes to a T. After I started walking across, a car pulled up to the stop sign. The driver then kept inching forward, kind of like she was going to make a right turn, looking to her right and forward but not checking to her left at all. Not only did she go across the crosswalk and block my path, she easily could have hit me if I’d tried to get around her.
The driver only realized I was there because I started speaking, saying “Whoa.” She was apologetic, but I was still annoyed. As a pedestrian, it’s easy to be self-righteous. Here are five of the reasons I came up with to explain her behavior:
1) She saw that there was no actual street on my side, and in not looking out for cars she forgot to look out for pedestrians, too (most likely).
2) She was new to city driving and wasn’t very familiar with this type of intersection.
3) One of her passengers seemed to be getting sick and she got so wrapped up in looking for a place to pull over that she couldn’t think about anything else.
4) She and her passengers were going to the (nearby) vet’s office with their dying cat, but they couldn’t quite figure out where it was located.
5) She saw someone in the distance who looked like her long-lost twin sister and couldn’t keep her eyes off that person.
As you can see, once I start running out of reasons things get a little zany. But all in all, it makes me remember that the person I’m fuming at is, in fact, a person. And it helps calm me down. After all, even if I chose never to drive again, I’d still have to deal with situations where I’m tempted into road rage. And I’d rather do what I can to keep my blood pressure down rather than suffer for no reason. David Foster Wallace said it best in his commencement address at Kenyon College. It’s so fantastic that I couldn’t choose a section to quote, I’m just going to link to the whole thing.
To sum things up, one of the main reasons that I started this blog is that I think there’s a place for personal finance musings that don’t come in the form of commandments or harsh judgments. The Frugalwoods have an excellent post on this. It’s easy to tell people what they “should” do, and it’s not so easy to examine the nuances that surround our finances and our lives. The word “should” has always seemed unhelpful to me. I’m not always right about what has worked for me, and I definitely can’t go so far as to tell other people what they “should” do – especially when it comes to money.