By Denise Dunbar
In a recent column, I recounted how the drive back from our family vacation at the beach was interrupted by a microburst that left our SUV and a sea of other vehicles stranded for an hour on hot, wet Interstate 95 just south of Florence, S.C.
A felled tree enabled the anonymous vehicles we had been traveling alongside to morph into real people. It was both beautiful and a bit jarring to have that vehicular boundary suddenly disappear as we found ourselves swapping stories with the occupants of those cars and trucks.
After the debris was cleared, we started for home and I had many hours to ponder what we had just experienced. I drew three primary conclusions from the experience:
First, the lack of injuries was nothing short of miraculous. The microburst was strong enough to uproot multiple trees, but it didn’t topple a single vehicle or push one driver into another. The tree fell onto the East Coast’s most traveled highway in moderately heavy traffic, but it didn’t fall on a vehicle and no one ran into it. I believe in a higher power — and God was with us on that roadway.
Second, the shift from anonymity to sudden community between the drivers seemed analogous to how we relate to one another in 2016 when compared with how we once did.
Before the tree fell, the drivers were unknown to one another, communicating only through the stickers on their vehicles, their license plates, their cars’ make and model and their driving skills. In the car — and on the Internet — it’s easy to provide drive-by commentary while remaining an island. It’s easy to throw a figurative bomb and then speed away.
But when the car doors opened, those drivers stripped their vehicular identity and became real people. The assumptions we might have made about a vehicle’s occupants based on their license plates or bumper stickers gave way to flesh and blood, other folks in the same predicament as us. A fleeting impression became a three- dimensional person. Coming face to face with people humanizes them. In our age of advanced but isolating technology, it is easy to forget that.
Finally, the most lasting but also most complicated impression: Every person on that roadway had their own story. They had a big-picture history of experience, effort and fate that included milestones they had celebrated and losses they had mourned. They also had a much more immediate story of why they were on that stretch of I-95 at that moment on that very day.
Although it may seem tangential at first, this made me think of the vitriol of this political season in our country and by extension in Alexandria. Everywhere we turn, someone is blasting, belittling or impugning the motives of those with whom they disagree.
It seems to me we desperately need to remember that each of us has our own individual life story — separate from any group identity — that has shaped our worldview. And those stories are as different as our fingerprints.
Likewise, the people who emerged from the cars on I-95 were individuals, not stereotypes. Not everyone with Maryland tags was speeding. Not every car from Georgia had a Trump bumper sticker. Even more importantly, if they were speeding or did have the sticker, that didn’t invalidate their worth as a person.
Each person’s perspective on a given issue is a product of his or her unique story. A group of us may believe the same thing on an issue, but we didn’t all arrive at that view in the same way.
Each of our stories is valid — because it is our own. So are our views that flow from those stories, even if others disagree. Likewise, we may believe that someone else’s opinion is flat wrong, but we need to acknowledge the humanity in that person.
And so, from a near calamity on a hot summer day when a bunch of us stood around chatting in the middle of a major highway, my ultimate takeaway is this: we are all on this journey together. More empathy would make the ride a lot less bumpy.
The writer is the publisher of the Alexandria Times.