Justice and mercy on the mean streets of Philly

It’s the sort of thing you think will never happen to you. To others, sure, but not to you. You’re invincible, you’re more careful, you’ve got catlike reflexes. In fact, you’re perfectly exempt from this particular catastrophe. Until…it does happen to you.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. For the first time, after years of opportunity and plenty of near misses and my fair share of miracles, I was car doored.

There I was, in my Sunday best on my way to Mass on a glorious spring evening. My skirt billowed in the breeze as I pedaled happily, noting the newly blossoming trees along my route, the shaded brownstones looking particularly charming in the waning sunlight. I biked along beloved neighborhood blocks I’d traversed hundreds of times, glancing at my favorite front doors and smiling at dogwalkers. I rolled in and out of shade and sun, deftly checking for oncoming traffic at stop signs (perfectly optional for bikers, of course), glancing at my watch from time to time, wondering if I’d set a new record for this well-worn route of mine. All was right with the world.

But then everything changed.

I approached a slowing car on a quiet one-way block with parked cars on both sides. As I drew nearer, I saw the familiar Uber logo on the bottom right of the rear window and prepared to nimbly navigate the impending obstacle. The car came to a stop, and a young woman began to open the right passenger door. Well, of course I’ll simply bike around it on the left side, I thought confidently to myself. There’s just enough room for a skilled biker like me. And so, as I slowly approached the left side of the car, preparing to narrowly pass by, another passenger, this one sitting on the left, opened her door.

And down I went. I tumbled (rather gracefully, if I do say so myself) into the parked car beside me, my handlebars gently knocking into its side. I found myself at eyelevel with the driver, his window wide open, neither of us making a sound. You okay? he finally asked. I’m fine, I replied, keeping my eyes fixed straight ahead, not even daring to look at him, burning with confusion and embarrassment and shame. I swiftly remounted my bicycle and continued on my way, with nary another word or glance or moment to assess. Just like that, it was finished. And I was invincible no longer.

Here’s the thing. When it comes to transportation, I’ve done it all. And not only am I familiar with many modes (driving, biking, running, walking, and swimming my most frequent), I feel perfectly entitled to rule the road or sidewalk or path or lane, whatever the mode I happen to be using at the time. Don’t we all? When I drive, I get annoyed by bikers who block my way and pedestrians who cross the street too slowly. When I bike, I’m indignant at how close cars come to me and how pedestrians don’t look up before they step off a curb. When I run, I scoff at bikers who whiz by without warning, and at walkers who dare to take up more than their share of the path. When I walk, I can’t stand bikers who don’t slow down sufficiently while passing through crowds, or cars who edge into the crosswalk as I make my way across. Oh, and then there are the drivers who irritate me when I drive, the bikers when I bike, the runners when I run, etc. etc. etc. How annoying is that?

But I take heart in knowing that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. In fact, there’s a name for it: fundamental attribution error. It is the claim, says Wikipedia, that unlike interpretations of their own behavior, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (such as character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people's behavior. The effect has been described as "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are.” Simply put, we have a tendency to assume the worst of others while giving ourselves plenty of free passes.

For instance, if I were operating under this principle in my aforementioned bicycle accident, I would assume that the Uber driver was carelessly stopping in the middle of the road with no thought to his surroundings, that the passenger was thoughtless and irresponsible in failing to look before she opened her door, that they are ultimately both fundamentally flawed in their character. All this while believing the best about myself, i.e. I was on my way to Mass, it was important that I get there in a timely manner, I’m a safe, responsible, skilled biker and it’s cars that need to watch out for me, etc. Don’t worry, this wasn’t actually my disposition in this instance. But there are plenty of times I fall into the snares of selfishness, as evidenced by my sense of entitlement on whatever road or path or sidewalk I happen to be driving or biking or running or walking on.

It’s times like these when I think of the intersection of justice and mercy. Yes, I want people to follow traffic laws and rules of the road and to be cautious and thoughtful. Yet my standards for others ought not to be higher than those I have for myself. Yes, I tend to believe the best of myself and excuse myself for somewhat bad behavior. Yet I ought to similarly assume the best of others and give them the benefit of the doubt. Yes, I believe that drivers and bikers and runners and walkers can coexist happily on the roads. Yet that happy coexistence needs to begin with my own softening and growth in patience and humility, not my indignance and frustration and roll of the eyes when things don’t go my way. I suppose I ought to reverse my “justice for others and mercy for myself” pattern of thinking.

It doesn’t need a fancy psychological term, really. It’s just a call to grow in love, a call I receive daily, in so many ways. It’s a call to slow down, to be gentle, to extend unsolicited forgiveness. A call to make these streets of mine just a little kinder.




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