The Center Road: When cooler heads prevail

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On a recent weekend, I was rear-ended while waiting at a stoplight, but I didn’t get mad. Then I started to wonder why.

The right rear corner of my cute little pearl-red SUV (whose name is Ruby), was dented and scraped. We pulled over and I took pictures. The other driver was a little upset, mostly at herself for being late to work, and repeatedly offered me her insurance information. No one was hurt, and my damage seemed modest, so we exchanged numbers and parted ways.

At home, after a bit of cleaning, poking, and touching up, my Ruby looked just as fine as ever to the untrained eye. I did not bother to make an insurance claim or take my vehicle to a body shop, which would have been way more effort than benefit.

I admit that I am a relatively phlegmatic person to begin with. Still, I had to wonder: why did I take this event to be a more-or-less normal part of my day?

That other driver’s mature attitude of cooperation and admission of guilt was somehow very reassuring.

Also, I was returning home from another successful flying lesson (you remember that column, right?) and I was already feeling pretty serene.

Certainly the scale of the problem was fairly small. On the other hand, I could easily imagine many people becoming mad at scratches and dimples, or even offended just because their day was interrupted. There is no shortage of statistics on this subject. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a third of all traffic accidents are the result of aggressive driving behavior.

What else may have prevented the situation from escalating?

One factor may be that my doctor and I work to manage my blood pressure. The Centers for Disease Control report that 32 percent of American adults have hypertension. I remember very well how my father’s temper disappeared once he started taking blood pressure medication.

Further, I don’t use caffeine. I dislike the nervousness, irritability, and poor sleep that results when I drink caffeinated coffee and soft drinks. So I just don’t.

Finally, I avoid people who are angry or loud, especially on television and radio. I think those broadcasts are trying to provoke their audiences to get mad, as if that’s a good thing. Anger multiplies. “Being mad” is by definition irrational. And irrational behavior is more likely to lead to mistakes.

There was a famous moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis that is illuminating. Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained how treaties would require several exchanges of bombs and missiles if a fight broke out between the U.S. and the Soviet Union involving Cuban, Turkish and German military installations.

When he was asked what would happen next, thinking that general nuclear war would result, Acheson replied, “Well, by that time we hope cooler heads will prevail and people will talk.” It turns out that we survived that crisis because our leaders kept their cool before the fight broke out, rather than after.

During my middle school years, it was a requirement to take a class in “Civics,” which described the workings of democracy and contrasted our system with communism and fascism. As part of the class, we learned about propaganda, as perfected by Stalin and Hitler.

You may remember a similar class. We heard how people can be convinced of a terrible idea through techniques like Testimonials, Glittering Generalities, Symbols, Appeal to Authority, Name-Calling, the Bandwagon and the Big Lie. Instead of using reason to draw conclusions, propaganda victims accept the selfish messages of the unscrupulous.

Of course, unprincipled people today still use these methods to try to sell us products, politics or dogmas. Propaganda techniques are not limited to any particular corporation, political party, or religion.

Those middle school teachers were trying to arm us with the power of reason. (Which is also the basis of science, by the way.)

“Think for yourself,” those teachers were saying. “Prove your beliefs.”

But you have to be calm before you can think well.

Sometimes I wonder how nice this world might become if everyone just quit drinking coffee and turned off the television.

Mark D. Grover is a resident of Gray. Your comments may be sent to feedback@markdgrover.com.