Human Condition: Dramatic change of heart _lowres

 

Several weeks ago, I was traveling east on Interstate 10 from Lake Charles to Baton Rouge, hoping to get across the Mississippi River bridge before the daily rush-hour crawl. I was returning from an emotionally taxing visit with my 87-year-old father in the rehabilitation center where he was struggling to recover from recent open-heart surgery.

As anyone who travels I-10 regularly will attest, the pace of traffic turns what should be a pleasant ride into a white-knuckle adventure. To make matters worse, a constant rain created hazardous road conditions along with severely limited visibility.

Just as our group of NASCAR wannabes cleared the Atchafalaya Basin bridge, our worst fears were realized. We came to a dead stop. Another driver’s misfortune somewhere on the roadway ahead had resulted in a complete closure.

My first reaction was, “Well, that’s just the way my day has gone,” but soon the unexpected pause became one of quiet reflection. I thought about the gentle kindness of my father and what may be the last days I’ll have to spend with him.

But this moment, too, was interrupted when my attention was drawn several cars ahead. A small silver compact was trying to cross the neutral ground, hoping to resume his journey in the still-functional westbound lane. As the car crept across the wet grass, it became apparent that the rain-soaked ground was far too soft, and the little car settled dutifully into the mud.

I’m certain everyone who witnessed the attempt had the same initial reaction: The driver should have known better. Not only has he made a fool of himself in front of all of his fellow travelers, but he’ll be stuck with a towing bill.

As the forlorn driver stepped out into the muck and rain, a funny thing happened. The young man stopped in front of me climbed out of his truck, pulled on his boots, retrieved a chain from his tool box and began walking toward our despondent traveler. Then, as if prearranged, two more 4-wheel drive vehicles pulled into the grass along the roadway and began developing a rescue plan.

In less than 15 minutes, one end of the chain was attached to the compact with the other anchored to a 4x4 with large enough tires to find traction in the wet grass. With one smooth pull, the small car was returned to the roadway, and everyone resumed their positions in our parade to nowhere.

I’ll admit my first thought was they didn’t have anything better to do, but as our roadway was reopened and our progress resumed, I found unexpected inspiration in this simple turn of events.

Every day, we’re rushing to get ahead, make a living, and provide for our loved ones. Often, that competitive drive creates frustration and animosity for everyone around us. We forget that they, too, are essentially working toward the same goals. It’s not until we’re forced to pause that we realize that we’re not alone in that pursuit and it’s quite possible that ours is not the most important journey being made that day.

Seeing a fellow traveler in trouble changed the atmosphere of the interstate completely. The hard-charging competition among the drivers was replaced by one of common goals and mutual sacrifice. You’re free to interpret this event any way you choose, but I choose to remember it as an example of how the best of human behavior will exhibit itself in the worst of times. It’s a personal philosophy that’s directed my dad throughout his life, and one that I hope never to forget or take for granted.

— Ellis lives in Baton Rouge

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