Grieving the Life We Trade Away for Driving

Not long ago, I felt particularly invisible while crossing a street near where I live. A stop sign was to my left, and I was walking parallel with the busy, illegally fast right-of-way traffic.

(Once, on the same street, on a corner where I walk at least a few times each week, a car careened over the boulevard, over the sidewalk, and into a brick building; maybe the driver was late for an appointment.)

The car approaching the stop sign from my left was a good 50 yards away when I began my crossing. It closed its distance from me in an instant, and I hustled across the intersection because the driver’s speed indicated no knowledge of the stop sign, let alone of me. The car halted abruptly. The impact thrust the driver and her passenger  forward in their seats — a classic illustration of, “Oops! I stopped too fast because I was driving recklessly.”

That forward lean was all the better for the driver to look around me and gauge whether the traffic was clear; it was not to look at me, or for me, to see whether I was still upright . . . or even there at all. I know because I stood still for a moment to look at the driver, figuring she would make eye contact and wave or shrug an apology (she didn’t). She drove away safely in spite of herself, and I’m not convinced she ever knew a living person was anywhere near her.

I thought, “What a sad, lost, hazardous, impersonal, isolated way for us to be around each other,” if you can call it “being around each other” at all.

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Noticed while biking: Two geese await a train. These geese also do have the option of flying to their destination.

I have a theory that when we drive, our brains — in their amazing efficiency — function only in a rudimentary way that allows them to scan objects and react quickly, without taking in much else. So much is going on when we drive –– steering wheel, gas, brakes, mirrors, blinkers, lights, wipers, maintaining warm or cool air temperature –– that the brain (necessarily) has no time to engage deeply with the world or with one’s own life. That’s good in this case, because the driver is supposed to be focused on driving.

But it introduces a broader idea: If you didn’t drive, you probably could encounter more opportunities to confront your life and your interconnectedness with the world around you. The motorist brain, in its (impressive) efficiency, arranges people into the same category as light posts, signs, walls and houses. I don’t think the motorist brain sees people or pets; it sees objects. So when a car passes a cyclist, the driver (understandably) has no time to consider the awesomeness of that cyclist’s life, or how running over that person with a speeding metal machine would undo all of the cyclist’s desires and gratitudes and future plans.

This is not a morality judgement; it’s what our brains do in the interest of performing a task. What I grieve for is the life we trade away in order to drive places.

We share aliveness with so many species that we keep uncovering, with astonishment, new species that are miraculously alive, but you wouldn’t know it from driving a car. Instead of seeing the funny things squirrels do, or watching deer amble, we see the stricken dead animals when we drive; then we strike down more animals to leave abandoned on the road (in spite of all that brain efficiency).

A few weeks ago I saw two possums cuddling in a neighbor’s front yard. Because I was walking, I had the freedom to stop and marvel for a while. Losing that freedom and gift of time is the price I pay for driving.

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A turtle greeting cyclists from the grass along the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis.

My awareness is no better than anyone else’s. (Confession: Our dog pointed out the possums to me!) The connection I have with the Earth, already obscured by smartphones and advertising, becomes even more fleeting when I am in a car. I’m already prone to distraction. I don’t need anything else blocking me from the smell or sight of flowers. Our time is short. Some trees flower for only a week. Some bugs live for only one day –– but as an old friend told me, that’s a big day for the bug.

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Lilac trees, which bloom for only a short while, are best observed up close.

Emotionally, intellectually, ecologically, cars desecrate the spirit of existence. They kill us quickly (collision) or slowly (air pollution, lack of exercise). Meanwhile, in places where the smog is heavy, sometimes you can’t see the sky.

On my usual bike route, one road often has a sign that says, ROAD CLOSED FOR EVENT. Considering that a nearby field ant can lift 5,000 times its body weight (an event if ever I’ve heard of one!), by this criterion the road would never be open to cars again. A more alive, more community-minded form of traffic actually deserves the right of way.


10 thoughts on “Grieving the Life We Trade Away for Driving

  1. Christa MChrista Moseng

    I was reflecting along similar lines as I biked in this morning. On my bike, I am acutely aware of minute details of the condition and composition of the road in a way that people in cars aren’t and can’t be. I have to swerve and path to dodge things that wouldn’t even register inside a car. Driving a car obfuscates an incredible amount of detail about the world, mostly because you’re going/trying to go faster, but also because you’re enveloped, and cushioned from it.

    Even on a bike, going 12 mph, I don’t get the fullness of detail available to me. But I still hear bird song and relate to humans I encounter as human beings, rather than as occupants and pilots of a massive machine, each of us burning gasoline and in climate controlled isolation chambers, our interactions mediated by that context.

    Car culture is so taken for granted, so embedded in the popular mind, this car-mediated experience of the world is mistaken ideal, virtuous experience, rather than a regrettable, deficient, to-be-avoided experience. And so much of our lives and public environment are poorer for it.

  2. UrbanDelite

    I needed this.

    I long for the days when I commuted daily via train in another city. It was relaxing. I asked a lot of questions and wondered about the things I saw. I engaged with my world a little more. I was able to observe and admire every single building behind which we passed. I noticed every single detail of the the people and places we passed, including my own apartment building. When I got off the train and walked the last few blocks to my office, I knew when Spring had arrived because I could smell the fresh mulch. I noticed how rebuilt street corners that were a little more square made drivers slow down and look for pedestrians when they turned.

    Not so much on my commute now where I focus on staying safe and getting to where I’m going.

    1. Christa MChrista Moseng

      Train travel is so incredibly relaxing. The luxury of being able to attend fully to something, whether it’s the world outside, or something written, or a conversation with a fellow passenger, is sorely undervalued in America, probably because we don’t even recognize that it’s missing.

    2. Kyle Constalie Post author

      I especially love it when we are surprised by something we always thought was familiar, like the building where we live. That’s awe and that’s the joy of life.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    This is a great essay and thought to keep in mind. We would all do well to remember the missing world, and when I walk or bike I often can encounter these things in the city. Flowers, smells of roasting coffee or a BBQ, sunshine, shadow, wind, the sounds of bells… the list is infinite.

    This line you wrote struck me:

    “So much is going on when we drive –– steering wheel, gas, brakes, mirrors, blinkers, lights, wipers, maintaining warm or cool air temperature –– that the brain (necessarily) has no time to engage deeply with the world or with one’s own life. That’s good in this case, because the driver is supposed to be focused on driving.”

    When I’m driving, not only does the traffic distract, but I consciously add things to my attention — podcasts, a sandwich, or a phone call — until it is beyond saturated. This is called “risk compensation” ( and I think most people do this when behind the wheel of a car, because the task is so reductive and “lost”.

    Thanks for this essay.

  4. Jenny WernessJenny Werness

    I think grieving is the perfect word to describe this phenomenon. Being in a car is a rarity for me nowadays, and on those rare car-using occasions I do feel a sense of unease. I would hate to start my day without my bike ride through the forest. Every day brings something new and lovely. Today: the bloodroot along Battle Creek are peaking. They hide in the shade, and you’d never notice if you were in a car.

    1. Kyle Constalie Post author

      The world is better when you notice the blood root peaking! Thank you.

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