Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Empathy on the side of the road

My sister and Mom moved down to Arizona, so we were able to come down and visit them, as well as friends and family in Las Vegas. Going a southern route through OK, TX, KS, and MO was fun. However, we had major car troubles in Phoenix. Hoping to make it to Las Vegas to have them fixed, and knowing that a good friend (Chuck Mennig) from Las Vegas would come to give us a tow if necessary, we attempted the 280 mile trip. After about 100 miles, we heard an ominous and continuous tapping. Climbing a bunch of hills didn’t help much. We prayed that we wouldn’t get stuck where we couldn’t get cell phone coverage (parts of Arizona are pretty desolate, especially this highway).

Our prayers were answered, although not exactly as we hoped. The engine stopped, and I said, “I guess we’re pulling over here.” We ended up just shy of Wikieup, AZ, on a short pullout area with double the normal shoulder. I think we all learned a lesson in empathy. Lucky for us, we waited with sufficient food, water, and clothing, knowing a very competent friend would come to our rescue. But no one else knew this. Picture our mini-van covered with a nice coat of Minnesota winter road splatter, on the side of the road, in the desert. We’ve just attended church and are trying to make it to Las Vegas to celebrate the rest of Conrad’s 10th birthday. I’m in a white shirt and tie, the boys in their Sunday shirts. I had just cut all of our hair before our trip, so if I do say so myself, we look pretty clean and tidy. Riley and I walk up to the ridge to get cell phone coverage (no, I can’t hear you now, Verizon). So who stops in our modern day road from Jerusalem to Jericho? It’s uncanny, but it seems like everyone that stopped was a smoker. I swear that the Good Samaritan was a smoker, or whatever the equivalent of that time was. The first is a short bald guy and his wife in a Lincoln Towncar. They are very nice and want to help before we reassure them and they go on their way.

The second is an old white cargo van with a sign advertising handyman service from “Batmon”. Out bounds a tall lady with sparkling eyes, probably my age, who seriously looked like she would have been a supermodel if she did not grow up in a trailer without much self-confidence (these are just my guesses). She says I can talk to her husband who might be able to help with the car. I go up to talk to him. The guy looks to be in his 50’s, has a two-day old beard, a baseball cap, tinted sunglasses, several missing teeth, and is holding a black and white kitten by the steering wheel. I explain that I know what the problem is and that someone is coming, and they drive off.
A bit later, as I try my cell phone further up the ridge, a dark green Ford Explorer comes down the highway and does a U-turn. This guy is probably in his 50’s and offers to take me into Wikieup to call. He says he dropped of his girls “to go pee” at the first big gas station in Wikieup. Not thinking that this is really hitch-hiking, Riley and I jump into his front seat, with a pack of Pall Mall’s in the cupholder, and make the two-mile jaunt into Wikieup. We chat pleasantly. As soon as we get there, I get a hold of Chuck on my cell, and he is already on his way. The Pall Mall guy’s daughters come out from the convenience store because his 5 year-old daughter wanted to see the little boy (Riley). The guy offers to give us a ride back, so we take it (again bunched in the front seat).

Now that we know Chuck is on the way and he knows exactly where to find us, we wait, patiently. We try not to make it look like we need help. But, at different times, Monica and I are walking around outside the car with Quinn so that he won’t cry. At other times, Riley and I are playing chess on the side of the road. So we weren’t totally hidden. Again, a modern day Samaritan stops – this time in a black Corvette. Riley loves Corvettes, and they seem to purr like a large undomesticated cat. Out climb an older couple. He has a white ponytail, an untucked denim shirt over a tee shirt and jeans, and a pair of Adidas tennis shoes, with the toe of the shoe not connected to the sole. She’s wearing black jeans, a black long-sleeved tee shirt, and a denim shirt over it, as well as what looked like a belt, including an understated (if that is possible when it is around your neck) belt buckle, around her neck. Again, the Corvette couple are smokers. They say they stopped because they’ve broken down a lot of times on the side of the road, especially on their old Harley Davidson. Again we bid them farewell with appreciation.

The wait is fairly pleasant, although Conrad reminds us that it is his birthday. I respond that we couldn’t buy memories like these. I mean, he’ll never forget where he was on his 10th birthday, or what he ate. The birthday spread included feta cheese with Wheat thins as an appetizer. The main course was beef jerky accompanied by a 2009 Costco bottled water (recommended, to bring out the flavor of the beef jerky). We finished the fete with a course of delicate granola bars.

As we wait, we try to amuse ourselves. Riley and I play chess. We finish our reading of the Book of Mormon (this had been in process two years, so that was NOT a small accomplishment, and could not have been planned in advance). Conrad does some reading in the Great Brain. I tell a good continuation of the Adventures of Conrad, Riley, Amelia and Quinn (the CRAQ team). I don’t want to ruin it for you, but the movie summary would be something like: “Quinn languishes in a hospital bed with pinky-toe cancer. Can Conrad, Riley and Amelia find the cure that Dr. Multi-level from Southern Utah says he found in a meteorite on his mission in Papua New Guinea? See whether the Conrad, Riley and Amelia can find Danny and Donny, the glow-in-the-dark donkeys who are the only known survivors from the atomic testing at Area 51 of the Nevada Test Site and hold the key to finding the miracle cure.”

Despite the pain of knowing that an expensive repair was imminent, it was quite enjoyable. And soon Chuck came, loaded our car up, and we were on our way. As we passed a rolled over truck and later a scorched RV, I felt much less worried about the lost time and money and more interested in what I learned.

I don’t think Conrad, or the rest of us, will forget this birthday. In our wait of about 3.5 hours (traffic was bad), we probably saw over 400 cars drive by us. For some reason, four of them stopped. So if this were an empathy test, the people from these four cars would be measured as the top 1 % on that day. Others surely had empathy, but they didn’t score quite as well on this measure. What explains these high performers? None of them were too rich, and I think all of them were smokers. Maybe the incorrect conclusion to draw from our small sample of Good Samaritans would be that smoking makes people more empathetic. Instead, I think it was what the Corvette Couple mentioned that matters. These people had experienced similar situations, and they stopped, maybe against the many murmurs of better judgment that crossed their minds like, “Oh, they have a cell phone” or “They don’t look like they are asking for help.”

Our few hours on the side of the road illustrate a problem that I have been concerned with before. I believe that we should do everything that we can to provide for ourselves and avoid difficulties like having cars that don’t run. This requires saving to buy another car once a car becomes unreliable, as well as proper maintenance, etc. (which is harder when you spend money on cigarettes). This becomes a lot easier when we have more money. But this strength can become a weakness in empathy. Not only are we more likely (not always of course) to judge others, but we are less able to even understand how it feels, which hinders us from serving others.

1 comment:

Kristin Chesnik said...

I think your right that when you have been through a traumatic car experience, you really watch out for others in that situation.

I am so interested in learning more about Danny and Donny, the glow-in-the-dark donkeys! Sounds like classical literature to me!