How a Roadside Pause Made Me a Doe-Eyed Optimist

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I experienced a flash of optimism today.

I was driving southbound on Cass Avenue, approaching an intersection where cars swarm in and out of parking lots that house big box stores and fast food joints. These are places where angry honks are just waiting to blare at the slightest inconvenience, aggravated by poorly designed exits and entrances obstructed by oversized SUVs.

As my body began to tense up in a Pavlovian response to the usual Saturday morning congestion, I was startled by a siren blast from an approaching fire truck, which was being tailed by an ambulance. Suddenly, all the traffic stopped. The oversized SUVs pulled to the side, sidewalk joggers stopped jogging, and the crew of car wash workers who had been swiftly wiping down an Audi all stopped to marvel at the fire truck, as did the car’s owner – like children in total awe.

For 15 seconds, the whole world stopped in solemn reverence. We had no details of the emergency and no ability – or even a desire – to make a judgement as to whether it warranted this response. We just knew that there was a need and these vehicles were answering the call – and our job was to stay out of the way. Sure, there are traffic laws requiring that motorists pull over to allow firetrucks and ambulances to move through, but this observance seemed less about lawful compliance and more about maintaining a certain social contract.

The notion that we can and do still uphold social contracts stirred within me a warm, gushy feeling of endearment for humanity that I had not felt in many months. We, a cluster of random strangers, each existing in our own individual little car pods with a diverse range of hyper-specific problems, worries, hopes, and dreams, were suddenly aligning to a collective understanding of how things needed to go in that exact moment.

It electrified me, like a jolt from the Holy Spirit.

God is alive on this street corner, I gasped. Right here next to this alarmingly crowded Dunkin Donuts.

It was incredibly fleeting, this existential moment. Once the sirens faded in the distance, everyone went back to being faceless bastards fighting for parking spaces, complaining about face masks and vaccines and teachers’ unions, voting for the wrong candidates, undermining faith and science and civil discourse.

But even now, seven hours later, I haven’t let go of that cozy feeling. It became a brilliant, highly saturated lens through which I viewed every little moment during my otherwise mundane errands. A retail worker helping an elderly lady reach a box of crackers from a top shelf. A young man letting a frazzled mother cut him in the checkout line because she only needed to buy a single gallon of milk. A teenager running a forgotten shopping bag out to its neglectful owner. Please, thank you, have a great weekend, stay warm, safe travels.

What were previously throwaway courtesies became, to me, reminders of the comfort we find in deep-rooted social contracts. This moment in American history has certainly exposed massive fissures in a perceived moral framework that so many people had either overestimated or taken for granted. I have certainly done my fair share of spiraling.

Still, in this moment, I am refusing to believe that the dissolution of American civilization is a foregone conclusion. Fifteen seconds of roadside reflection has made me a doe-eyed optimist, if only for a day. At this point, I’ll take whatever optimism I can get.

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