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From Vol. 5, Issue 7, July 2023

When we are stuck in traffic

Practicing Stoicism || JOHN KUNA

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Stuck in traffic. Not again!

Imagine yourself commuting to work, or dropping off your child at school, or going to pick up groceries. You know the route, it’s second nature to you. You’re thinking about the day ahead, whether your kid did the homework, what you’re planning to cook this week. But, you’re running late. The road is packed with drivers. Some driving slowly, some going lane to lane – anything to edge slightly faster toward their destination. You’re coming up to a light. It’s green. Oh, now it’s yellow. Will the car in front of you make it? Oh, they decided to stop instead, now you’re stuck at the red light and running further behind.

The light changes green. The car in front of you doesn’t move. You blare your horn. You start to move. Suddenly, a car lurches in front of you from your blindspot. Too close. You slam on the brakes in the middle of the intersection. The car behind you swerves around you. Its driver gives you a dirty look. The car in front speeds away. You’re shaken. You’re late. Almost got in a crash. What do you do? What do you say to yourself? How do you respond?

Thoughts that don’t help

If you’re like me, traffic can sometimes be a blind spot in our Stoic practice. You may have all sorts of harsh impressions arise about the situation. I should be on time. This person in front of me should have made the light; they’re an idiot. Ugh, they’re not paying attention – moron. WOAH, way to cut me off you jerk! It wasn’t my fault, how could you blame me for that?! We’re so focussed on where we’re trying to go that we stop focusing on what we’re trying to do. And when something doesn’t go the way we prefer it to, things can spiral pretty quickly into a cascade of negative thoughts and judgments about the situation and others. And then, we’re left picking up the pieces of our fragile ego and mental state.

Take a beat.

Don’t be too quick to assent

As Stoics, we know the most important thing is to cultivate an excellent moral character – to be a good person. One of the most practical and intuitive techniques the Stoics honed to reach that goal is the Discipline of Assent. It’s a simple concept. When something happens in the world and it raises an impression in you, take a beat. Before committing to your immediate response, ask yourself: Can this affect my capacity for being a good person? Is this even true? You’ll find that the answer to those questions is often “no.” Let’s go through some of those examples above, now from the Stoic perspective. Rather than blindly accepting them as reality, we will interrogate them using the Discipline of Assent.

I should be on time. But, being late doesn’t make me a bad person. I can still choose to respond to this situation well. I can be more mindful about leaving earlier. It’s not the traffic’s fault – it’s just traffic. A fact of life. We all run late occasionally, and that’s okay.

The idiot ahead

This person in front of me should have made the light; they’re an idiot. That’s a little harsh. Are they really an idiot? Perhaps they’re just being cautious. Perhaps they realized they wouldn’t clear the intersection with such heavy traffic. Moreover, can their decision make me a bad person – or would believing they’re an idiot based on one choice make me a bad person? Probably the latter, it’s not appropriate to judge so quickly.

Ugh, they’re not paying attention – moron. More harsh insults! What if the traffic is packed on the other side of the intersection? What if they’re too far under the light and can’t see it? It may be fine to hit my horn so they know to move, but who am I to call them a moron? Can they make me a bad person? No.

WOAH, way to cut me off you jerk! That person drove in an unsafe manner and almost hit me. But I’m okay – I avoided the crash. They could be in even more of a rush than me, maybe it’s urgent. Maybe it’s a medical emergency. Does their behaviour affect whether I’m a good person? Not at all.

It wasn’t my fault, how could you blame me for that?! Maybe this person doesn’t know what happened. Maybe that wasn’t a dirty look and they’re just shaken like I am. Can their glare really affect my moral character? No, only my own actions and beliefs can do that.

As you go through your day, take a beat. Practice assent. Remember that cultivating your character is only something that you can do for yourself. As Epictetus once said:

It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them. - Enchiridion Ch. 5

John Kuna is a Stoic prokopton, writer, and dog lover. He likes digging deep into Stoic theory, but also writing accessible and inspiring Stoic content.