Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Smart Aleck Bumper Stickers

On the bumper of my 2000 Honda Civic (Elsie, I call her, after my late beloved Franciscan novice counselor) are a couple of bumper stickers. On the left side there is a sticker with a telephone image and the words "Hang up and drive!" On the right side, a more modest, tasteful lime green sticker reads "WWJD: What Would Jesus Drive?" n
OK, I know, I know. Just a little preachy and smug. I actually ordered both stickers off websites at a moment when I was more than a little annoyed with the latest coed in her SUV complete with her sorority decal in the rear window in the pass lane on the expressway, oblivious to the world and holding up a little parade as she was weaving across the center line from time to time and hitting her brakes for no apparent reason (must've been a funny joke!). But I'd like to think my bumper sticker evangelism has more of a purpose than mere expression of irritation at rush hour.

As a college instructor, I observe the most amazing scene the moment class is dismissed each hour. In one fluid motion, many of my students pick up their book bags and take out the cell phone that most - though not all - have been courteous enough to turn off in class and by the time they hit the door to the hall, they're already engaged in conversation. I see them staggering across the campus, oblivious to their surroundings and sometimes unaware even of their footing as they walk by, chatting so loud that even if I had not wanted to hear about their lunch menu, their evening plans or the chick that vomited into the punch bowl, I still get to share that joy.

While this is annoying and perhaps something to chalk up to immaturity, when one combines this obliviousness and inconsideration with a motor vehicle, it's as problem. When you add all the other age groups - those of us who ought to know better - doing the same thing, it can be dangerous. One of the common observations I make of driving cell phone addicts is that they often appear to be looking up, as if to imagine the face of the dear one whispering sweet nothings into the cell phone on the other end. The problem is, they're not looking at the highway! They aren't aware that they're holding up a train of cars in the pass lane or that they're in the middle of a curve on an entry ramp. In short, they're tuned out.

Part of what disturbs me about this phenomenon is what it says about these folks. The comparison has been made more than once of cell phone use to other addictive activities including driving while under the influence of intoxicants. Accident rates suggest this new addiction is approaching the destructiveness and deadliness of the other intoxicants while driving. And yet the rate of cell phone use continues to climb. Why is that?

What strikes me about all this is the apparent near desperation to be distracted. The kids call it being entertained but the bottom line is not so much enjoyment of what one is engaged in as much as the perceived need to avoid thinking about what they are doing. Somehow walking across campus and driving to one's apartment are now too boring to be dealt with. So we must be distracted, diverted from these oppressive facts of life.

One of the marks of spiritual maturity is the amount of time one can spend alone with themselves. I look at my students, beautiful young men and women with good minds and often with sweet hearts and wonder to myself, what could be so bad that it must constantly be held in abeyance, constantly escaped? Why must they be constantly diverted or distracted? At a very basic level, their cell phone abuse is not just about inconsideration and the inability to respect others, though it is about that. But it is more: it is a barometer of how much of the American myth that says our prosperous lives overrunning with material goods somehow make us happy is no longer able to be taken seriously. People don't feel the need to escape or be diverted from happiness.

Of course, there is much that could be said about what Jesus would drive. My father dryly quipped, "A camel." And he's right, of course. But the point of the sticker is not that Jesus would endorse a particular consumer product but whether he'd think *any* of them are particularly good things. SUVs tend to be top heavy and roll over. When they do, they often kill anyone their vehicle touches, sometimes along with the SUV occupants. They also hog more than their share of the gas fueling our national petrochemical addiction. They take up more than their share of the highway, the parking lot and pollute more than their share of the air.

Clearly there are some SUVs that are worse than others. And then there's the Humvees! What sadist determined that monstrosity should be marketed for American streets and highways? But what all of these vehicles have in common is one thing: selfishness. I call SUVs the "selfishmobiles" for obvious reasons.

Of course, in my little Honda, I spend a good deal of time looking into the back of SUVs I can't see around. I find that annoying on a good day, frustrating as hell on a bad day. But mostly, I simply think that the person who would inflict him or herself on the public with such a vehicle - and often with a cell phone in use to boot - really has a hard time escaping the junior high misimpression that "it's all about me."

Now, I think Jesus would have a good deal to say about that. I think he'd remind us that one of the primary ways we love G-d is by loving others as ourselves. I think he'd remind us about the lilies of the field and how they display G-d's goodness and generosity, lilies that fall victim to more and more pavement to accommodate larger vehicles and to acid rain that results from their exhausts. I also think he'd point to "the least of these," the working poor in their rattle-trap vehicles, barely road worthy, often uninsured, but absolutely vulnerable to assault with a deadly selfishmobile.

I suppose I'll take those stickers off shortly. I'm not much of a one for bumper stickers generally and I don't dare put a sticker on for a candidate I want to win election - it's generally the kiss of death. But I do have to say that I'm worried about where this is all going. Mother Earth can't take an ongoing, mindless self-indulgent human race oblivious to what it's doing to the planet, much less to each other. I'm hopeful things may be about to change in this country at the top. But the desperate search for diversion, distraction and entertainment regardless of how it affects other human beings, much less the planet, is a symptom of a much deeper problem. There are days when I wonder if we're really up to hearing what our warning signs are trying so hard to tell us....


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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