One of the first things that visitors and newly arrived residents will notice about this part of the world is that pedestrians are given an incredible amount of freedom to walk across the road, whenever and wherever they want. The question of who gets right of way is answered differently around the world, but here it seems that the pedestrian always gets it.
From the outsider’s perspective, it often also looks like a fairly pleasant exchange. A pedestrian decides that he or she would like to be on the other side of the road, and walks across trusting that any approaching vehicles will surrender the right of way. The vehicles involved come to a graceful stop, and when it is safe again, they gently accelerate and resume their course, making no effort to demonstrate that they have been inconvenienced at all.
However, anyone who’s been here for any length of time knows that this interaction is not as graceful as it looks. The pedestrian is probably carrying with him or her a load of resentment from all the other times a vehicle has taken away their right of way, and he or she is ready to release a barrage of anger if anyone dares invade their personal space on the road. The drivers are often angry that this person has walked across without looking first, angry that they have had to slow down, and afraid that if they honk or show any displeasure at all, they will get yelled at or worse. So, what looks like a graceful exchange from an outside perspective really has two sides that feel like victims.
It is probably a little too simple to say to someone in that situation, “Just turn the other cheek.” This phrase is probably one of the most disliked Biblical passages, but it is probably also one of the most misunderstood. The full phrase is “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also.” The specific mention of “right cheek” should catch our attention. Since the assumption was always that everyone was right handed, the only way a right handed person could hit someone on the right cheek is to hit them with the back of their hand. In any society, this is an incredibly offensive gesture. So when Jesus says that we should instead “turn the other cheek,” he isn’t telling us to accept more abuse. By turning your left cheek to your abuser, you asking them to hit you, not as a master to a slave or as a superior to an inferior, but as an equal. The real point to this phrase is that we should not let our dignity be taken from us. If we refuse to accept victim status, we will maintain our dignity.
So we go back to the silent standoff between pedestrian and driver. When I am the driver, I always try to smile at the people walking in front of me. It’s harder to see if they don’t ever look in my direction, but it doesn’t have to be an angry encounter. If I am getting tense about how much they are slowing me down, that probably means I didn’t give myself enough time to get ready in the first place. If you walk in front of my vehicle, you are not taking anything from me, I am giving it up freely. When I am the pedestrian, I try to wave as gesture of thanks. I teach my children to do the same. The drivers may feel like they are forced to stop, but by thanking them, I humble myself and I restore dignity to them.
Some people might read this and think I am working far too hard to make this point. Maybe I am, but I have never been yelled at so loudly in public as when a pedestrian thought I had taken away their right to walk in front of me. I have never been so confused behind the wheel as when the person walking in front of me saunters totally unaware how close they came to dying if not for my heroic ability to stop.
So, the next time you decide to cross the road, or you stop your vehicle for someone else that is, remember, you are not a victim. You have a choice to honour the people around you. They are neither your oppressors nor your victims. They are your equals.
Reprinted from the March 22, 2012 issue of the Okotoks Western Wheel