“Is something wrong?” Bryan asked, sitting next to me in the passenger seat while I drove down the freeway.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“You hit your breaks,” he said.
“Oh. Yeah. That guy ahead was stopping.” I paused to reflect. The guy ahead of me did stop, but he was far ahead of me. There was plenty of space. “I don’t trust my breaks. I’m paranoid about hitting people in front of me and so I don’t trust my breaks. It freaks me out when people trust their breaks.”
I then went on to explain to him where this came from. As I spoke, I laid bare a behavior that had been unconscious until that moment. I explained it to myself as much as to him. I sort of knew about it, but I hadn’t realized how much went into it, or how consistent it was. It shocked me a little bit. Here was this pattern born from the twin brothers–caution and fear–living inside my head and dictating the way I drove.
It came from a series of events that occurred just as I started driving. Two fender-benders and a car-totaling-collision, all involving smashing into someone from behind.
The first time was just after my wife and I arrived in Florida with practically everything we owned stuffed into the car. I’d gotten my license a few weeks before, at the age of 20, specifically so we could move from Massachusetts to Florida so I could go to culinary school down there. Practically my first experience driving on my own was a 1000 mile trip down the East Coast in a 1996 Dodge Spirit we bought for $600, massively overloaded with clothing and computers and disassembled furniture.
There was a traffic jam and a tricky intersection with a nearly-invisible light. I didn’t break in time, and I bumped into the car in front of me. It scratched her paint a little. I gave her my mom’s insurance card–not knowing for sure if I was covered or how it worked. I never heard from her again.
The second incident occurred a few months later during a rainstorm. It was the kind you only get in the tropics and subtropics, rain escaping from the clouds with such intensity you’d think they were afraid of drowning if they stayed up there. I pulled into a right turn lane-cum-swimming pool, and another drive cut me off right before the turn and stopped short when the light turned red. I slammed on my breaks, but my tires were in three feet of water, so the 10 feet between me and him weren’t enough. Both me and the other driver turned into the mall and pulled over to inspect the damage. There wasn’t any. When I got back in the car to drive off again the engine wouldn’t start.
A few months later we got a brand new black Hyundai Accent named Raven. My mom co-signed, and we got the warranty and everything. One day as I was driving to school a truck screeched to a halt at a turn lane four cars in front of me. The car behind the truck stopped just short of hitting it, then the car behind that did the same, then the car behind that, then I stopped an inch from hitting the guy in front of me. I had just enough time to sigh with relief when an old man slammed into my rear, knocking me into the car in front of me, and him into the car in front of him, and so on until it was a five-car pileup. None of us were moving very fast. The only car to take serious damage was mine. Poor Raven was totaled.
Ever since then I’ve been paranoid about hitting the car in front of me. I stop far before I need to, just to be safe. And I never, ever trust my breaks. It influences everything about the way I drive, and I didn’t even realize that until my friend Bryan unwittingly pointed it out.
It’s like I recruited a mercenary inside of my head. His job is to patrol my attention while driving, and strictly enforce the don’t-trust-your-breaks rule. Mostly he serves me, but it’s unnerving that I didn’t realize he was there. I gave him his assignment years ago and he’s been dutifully carrying it out ever since.
It makes me wonder just how much of our thoughts and behaviors are dictated by mercenaries like this. These unconscious soldiers, armed with sharp spears to poke the inside of our brains whenever we veer off of the behavior they so zealously enforce. Sometimes they take their orders too seriously, or they change over time so that we can barely remember why we hired them in the first place.
It’s hard to dismiss them after a while. They identify so strongly with their jobs. I wonder, too, just how we are paying these soldiers. I wonder if the price is worth it.