Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Laboring at conflict on Labor Day

Image via VeloTraffic/Flickr
Yesterday my wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and my folks met in nearby Grinnell and rode a nice paved bike trail from town to Rock Creek State Park, about 7 miles west. Once we got there, we stood around the boat ramp for a while and decided to ride further west on the county highway to see if we could circle the lake. We got a few miles out but couldn't find or see a south-bound paved county road, so we decided to turn back around.

On our way up the last hill before the lake, in a single-file line on a road with no paved shoulder (the norm on county roads in Iowa), a huge pickup truck pulling a fishing boat came barreling down the hill behind us and didn't slow down whatsoever as he came upon us on the uphill side. Rather than giving us the full lane (which is the lawful and safe thing to do), he pulled maybe into the middle of the road and flew by us going probably 65 mph (speed limit is 55), scaring the crap out of all of us, given his speed and the truck's and boat's proximity to our exposed bodies, and the fact that trailers aren't exactly the most stable things when being pulled down the road.

Reactions were mixed. My dad swore (one of my friends has lovingly nicknamed my dad "Swear Gumm"), my mom said something about wishing she had rockets on her bike to catch the guy. My daughter up in front of our line was shaken. Like most of us, I too was angry, but I knew where the guy was headed: The boat ramp, where we had just come from and where we were again approaching. I rode up to my wife and said, "If that guy's at the boat ramp, I'm gonna go have a talk with him."

"Take your dad with you," was her response.

As we approached the lake I began rehearsing how I was going to handle this in the most peacable way possible. We pulled into the park and approached the boat ramp. Sure enough, there was the huge truck with the red fishing boat behind it. There was nobody around either, so I assumed he (yes, I assumed that "he" was a he) was inside the ranger station settling whatever business had to be done so he could boat and fish for the day.

Then from around the corner of the station, walking toward the huge truck, came a huge bearded dude and a little boy. Great. Huge truck, huge dude with a camo cap, and me a man of slight build in bright-colored bike clothing. Here we go...deep breath...

"Excuse me, sir, is this your truck?"


"Well, I just wanted to let you know that the way you passed us on the highway back there was really dangerous. It was too fast and too close, and you really scared my daughter." - From behind me my mom piped up, "And her grandmother!"

Midway through my opening spiel, the guy's look shifted from surprised bewilderment to a mix of incredulity and indignation. But I continued...

"Bikers enjoy all the same rights on public roadways as do drivers..."

At this point the guy may have muttered an "Okay" or something like it, but he did proceed to walk past me to his boat where he began rummaging around, turning his back to me as I continued to talk.

"Look, I see that you've brought your son here with you to enjoy the day, and we're just out trying to do the same, okay?"


"Thanks, I appreciate it."

And that was it. As I rejoined my family nearby, we began talking about the experience. My legs were shaking from the adrenaline being dumped into my body at the start of the conversation, getting me ready for a "fight or flight" moment. (Even just typing up this account gets my heart pounding again!)

As a peacebuilder, part of my training has been to be a "reflective practitioner." So I recount this story not to puff myself up, but as a way to reflect critically on the situation. So I'll use the "Three R's of restorative justice" - Respect, Relationship, Responsibility - to reflect on how I tried to handle the conflict:

  • Respect - I actively had to remind myself that this guy was a real person with real feelings, real problems, deserving of dignity, respect, etc. So when I addressed him, I tried to keep things as non-threatening to him as I could. For instance, I called him "Sir" rather than the nickname my dad had used at the scene of the drive-by (a name which I didn't necessarily disagree with, by the way...). I also did not ask him "Why?" questions, which tend only to escalate tense situations like this by putting people on the defensive. In fact, I didn't ask him any questions at all, except "Okay?" at the end of our conversation, just to get some indication that he had heard me. (Had he listened? Who knows...)
  • Relationship - While obviously not having a personal relationship with this guy, his blowing by us in a dangerous fashion (a perceived and legitimate wrong) and his stopping just down the road gave us an opportunity to meet. We were, by circumstances, brought into relationship. My appeal to laws on public roadways for bikers and drivers signaled that, yes, even if only in a formal sense (but also a spatial sense; like hey, we're right next to you, buddy) - we are connected. I also appealed to our common ground of fatherhood; we both want what is good and best for our respective children.
  • Responsibility - Rather than pedaling past the boat ramp, stewing on it, and talking bad about the guy amongst ourselves, I wanted to let him know that not only do we have a relationship but also a responsibility as bikers and drivers on the same public road to care for each other, and that laws in this case are a formal way to help us stay safe as we pass by strangers on roads. My appeal to our common fatherhood was also a signal that we each are responsible for our children's wellbeing; I was trying to elicit some empathy from the guy. (Did it "work?" Again, who knows...)
And from a Christian angle on this, I intentionally prayed for the wellbeing of this man and his son after we started riding back toward Grinnell. Past my initial anger, I really didn't wish the guy any ill will, and continuing to harbor any would be unloving toward this "enemy" of sorts.

So that's my story. I tend to be a conflict-avoider, but for whatever reason I wasn't going to let this one go yesterday. How'd I do? Peacebuilding pals, is there any other way to look at this that might shed critical light on my approach? - I hope some fellow Iowa bikers read this, too, and if they do: What kinds of work has been done to make Iowa a more bike-friendly state? (And how can we keep that kind of work moving?)

No comments:

Post a Comment