Delayed Reaction

I was traveling toward a major metropolitan area on the last day of a long holiday weekend. You can picture the scene: as far as the eye could see, both lanes were clogged, moving slowly. It was the sort of traffic that leaves only one option: double the expected travel time, find an entertaining radio station and try to relax. Back in high school when I was taking behind-the-wheel driver training, my instructor, Mr. Graves, emphasized the necessity of leaving two car-lengths between myself and the next driver ahead. He made this point so vigorously and so clearly that I have never been able to deviate from his instruction. I get nervous as a passenger when my driver rides the tail of the next vehicle, violating the two-car rule. I can hear Mr. Graves’s voice in my mind warning of the dangers of crowding others on the road. So whether I am practically alone on the freeway or am driving in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I always leave that sacred space open.

But not everyone had Mr. Graves for driver education. In fact, I encountered such a fellow last summer while driving back into the city after the Fourth of July. His maroon car pulled up behind me, and I mean right behind me. This guy put the word tailgate in the dictionary. In a matter of seconds, he was not only tailgating me, but blasting his horn. I looked in my rearview mirror, and saw his head tossing from side to side in frustration. He appeared to be yelling at me. I found this both weird and amusing. Couldn’t he see the miles of clogged traffic ahead of us? What was the point of the drama? Oh yes, I know he could see those two car-lengths in front of me, and it was really driving him crazy, but...come on!

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He was somehow able to maneuver his car around me, and when we were side by side, the fist-shaking, headshaking and yelling really intensified. I was pretty sure he was not shouting church words. He was so expressive, it was a shame he did not notice that we were both enclosed in glass and metal capsules, and the only one who could hear his speech was himself. He took advantage of the empty space in front of my car, and swerved into the spot. He looked at me in his rearview mirror and offered a few more unfriendly gestures. He eventually lost interest in me, and turned his attention to the next car in front of him.

What would he say if he had the opportunity to be heard? Would he say he was busy or in a hurry or had important things to do? He would have a lot to say, I suppose, but one thing is certain: he did not have time to put up with people and cars moving at a reduced speed.

Earlier in the same weekend, I had attended Mass at a Catholic church in the country that I visit occasionally. It has a small congregation of about 75 people. One of the parishioners who faithfully attends and participates has an obvious handicapperhaps Down syndrome or some other form of a developmental disability.

A Catholic service can be a mystery to those who are not Catholic. The priest, lector or cantor will say something, and the congregation responds with a word or phrase. Before I became a Catholic, I was always lost, and never knew when to say Lord, hear our prayer or Peace be with you. Now that has changed, and I follow along with those who were raised in the faith from the cradle. There is a bit of a rhythm to the service, a Catholic call-and-response.

But at this service in the country, the rhythm is different. The man with the disability responds, but with a delay. The priest says his line, the parishioners say theirs, and then this man comes in third, speaking alone after everyone else is done. Sometimes he says the word or words once, but at times he will say them multiple times. Amen. A.....men. Amen? Whoever is leading (priest, lector or cantor) will always wait for this fellow parishoner to complete his response. There seems to be no rush, no hurry. Last week he served as an usher, helping to collect offerings with one of the long-handled baskets. His co-usher walked down the aisle with him to begin their task, and clearly adjusted his pace to match that of his disabled companion. He didn’t look annoyed with the delay; he seemed perfectly content to adjust to the needs of his partner.

You could argue that these people were in church and had to be polite. But I have been there, and I don’t think that’s the case. The people in this congregation appear to take the words of Jesus genuinely to heartthe words warning us not to treat those of a superior social status better than those who are, in a sense, socially disenfranchised. This behavior is refreshing, really; it manifests true spirituality, the sort of spirituality that includes everyone.

I contrast that scene with the freeway impatience. I can imagine how the driver in the maroon car moves through his days. I can imagine how he treats his family, his co-workers, his children. It doesn’t take a licensed psychiatrist to imagine how he feels insidea person who randomly spews anger at anyone in his path. I find I want to write him off in my minda flipped-out rage-o-maniac.

But really, he needs a dose of that patient love the man in the country church is getting, the kind of love that catches you off guard and melts the rough edges away. He would have to slow down to let this love in. That would be his first challenge. And then he probably would resist receiving this patient love, because he would think he does not deserve it.

But if someone stuck with him, and he opened up just a little bit, it would transform his life. He would be able to ease into letting people live easy, gentle lives around himno push to make them speed up to his liking.

If he joined me some Sunday morning in that out-of-the-way country church, he might see for himself one of those little but valuable virtuesthe gracious acceptance of a delayed reaction.

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