One of the many valuable and practical lessons that the Buddha taught is that our minds routinely misperceive what is right in front of us. That might sound like the problem is with our senses, particularly our eyes, but that’s not the case. The problem lies in our tendency to process what we’re experiencing incorrectly, and that leads us to suffer unnecessarily.
We experience something and view it as a problem, and then we expend a lot of energy trying to solve the problem. That’s a short summary of what the Buddha figured out and taught in the 6th or 5th century BCE.
For example, picture yourself on a hike, perhaps in the mountains or by the ocean. Clouds form, and soon raindrops begin to fall. Now this rain can be a gentle rain, not a downpour at all, but you quickly view the rain as a problem, something that is going to ruin your plans. You might chastise yourself for not checking the weather forecast. Or, if you did check the forecast and the forecast was inaccurate, you might feel anger at the weather forecaster. As the rain continues to fall, you might then become angry at yourself for not taking rain gear along. You might top things off by feeling sorry for yourself, thinking, “Well, here’s another day ruined.”
Whether or not we feel angry at the weather, the forecaster, or ourselves, the real source of our displeasure, the Buddha suggested, is not the rain at all. Our displeasure is instead rooted in our deciding that the rain is a problem. A Buddhist would say, “What is just is.” Rain is only rain; it is we who make it a problem. As a wise student said to me many years ago when I was complaining of the rain as we walked across campus, “Gee, Dr. Carlson, it’s only water.”
Let’s consider a far more serious issue — road rage. In 2021, more than five hundred people were wounded or killed in road rage incidents in our country, and every year those figures have increased. But haven’t all of us who drive complained about the behavior of other drivers? I confess that I’ve done that. Just ask my wife.
A car in an adjacent lane doesn’t seem to see us and begins to drift over into our lane. In an instant, we lay on the horn, and I mean we lay on the horn. The thought might cross our minds that the other driver made that move — that “stupid, stupid, what was that person thinking?” move — on purpose. Perhaps we imagine that the other driver can hear us as we offer a lecture on safe driving to our own empty vehicle. But at least five hundred Americans in 2021 decided to do more than talk to themselves in their cars. They decided to give the other driver a lesson he or she would never forget.
What the Buddha might say is that, for all we know, the person who drifted into our lane did us a favor. Perhaps that driver noticed an accident up ahead, and his or her actions forced us to slow down and thereby saved us from adding to the accident. Or perhaps the other driver added a few minutes to our trip or errand, and that delay lead to something unexpectedly good. The other driver’s behavior might not be a problem but a gift — or maybe not. Who knows? And that’s the Buddha’s point.
What we can know for certain is that another driver drifting into our lane could contribute to our moral development. For that’s the thing about virtues — we can’t attain them in a vacuum. To obtain the virtue of humility, we have to be tempted by pride. To obtain the virtue of honesty, we have to be tempted to lie. To obtain compassion, we have to be tempted to ignore the needs of others.
At a bare minimum, then, the other driver’s wayward actions offer us a chance to develop the virtue of patience. Whether we gain that virtue or spend the rest of the day replaying in our minds what we wish we could say to that driver is up to us — and no one else.
David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to email@example.com.