My driver’s license expired a few years ago and it took another year to get reinstated. By the time I got behind the wheel this summer, I hadn’t driven a car since 2014. The experience felt a bit like time travel, throwing me back into all of the days I romanced the road. When I was 16, my parents never understood how could be burning through so much gas, having no idea I spent some evenings alone, smoking cigarettes, listening to Liz Phair, driving as far west as I could on I-94 so that I had just enough time to turn around and make it home before curfew. I felt drawn towards movement, this illusion of a next life, a new version of myself, somewhere else.
In my teenage years, the car was the only way to escape family, suburbs, or the doldrums Midwestern industrial towns. Even though I grew up in an American suburb, with mini-vans at critical mass, I spent most of my twenties and nearly all of my thirties without a car. I haven’t owned a vehicle since 2012, when I moved to Berlin, but the near erotic sensations of driving came back quickly– independence, freedom, and a sense of individuality. The feeling of power, of force and strength, the formidable sense of self.
For me packing up a car and moving on, signaled more than a physical move, it always meant leaving something else behind, usually a job, a relationship, or an entire life. I’ve packed cars for a string of moves from Arizona to Minneapolis to Boston and New York. When I was 22, I packed up Nissan Hatchback to leave an ex-boyfriend, blasting dance hall, rap, and techno–the specific music I knew he hated, finally liberated and ready to start over. I had the same feeling when I called off my wedding and left to drive across the country or when I came back from living abroad and packed my car and drove from Milwaukee to California. There was always the feeling that I could go anywhere, be anyone, the feeling that I was independent, and even more, no longer dependent on anyone at all.
But, I as I have learned in travel and in life, freedom always invokes its corollary loneliness. The first thing I noticed about getting behind a wheel and into a car alone is the immediate feeling of isolation. After you slam the door, the sounds outside go numb, the air is stale, and even with the windows open you sense that the space around you is contained. It is yours, and you are it. You start the engine, empowering the movement of your body, your personal things, you somehow morph into your vehicle as you glide through the world with this added layer of protection, this added layer of self.
Literally the word automobile means “alone” and “transport.” With this alone-transport, our paths and directions guided independently, separate from others, even those who share the road for a short period of time. We may glance over, check out the vehicle next to us at an intersection, take note of another driver, but rarely, if ever, is there eye contact, or connection. We separate ourselves more, by listening to our own music, devising an entire space around us that is simply—ours. Cars distance us, not only from others, but also ourselves, as we retreat away from our lives, our tangible worlds that ground us to our loved ones, or lives, or even land.
In our cars, we are removed and separate.
In the U.S. the vehicle represents more than economic status or security, freedom and independence as represented in art and cultural works like Kerouac’s, On the Road but also the paramount idea of individuation that defines American exceptionalism. In a culture dominated by the glorification of individualism, the declaration of pressing individual space upon others is amplified, through louder base system or another veil of separation through tinted windows. And more, the extensions of self through the vehicle are able to represent more than just protective metal. Cars themselves are extensions of class and other identity markers. While driving gives the sensation of independence and freedom, the strongest emotion I ever felt on the road was isolation.
When you consider the psychology of life behind the wheel, you are facing headlights, not eyes, sheets of metal, not life or skin, or energy, or anything with the value of human interconnectedness. Weighing the psychological impact of being separated, encased in machinery, and metal, road rage doesn’t come as a surprise. There is a distance between us, one that dehumanizes our experience, but also our relation to the world. It’s like the cinematic trope of murdered anthropomorphized robots, except that, we are, humans behind the wheel, humans inside and operating the machine.
In American psychology, this separate self, the idea of individuality drives productivity and work-ethic becoming bound up in our professional identity, economic achievements, and essentially, our unique capabilities. The problem is not with the idea of individual authenticity, or the potential of uniqueness, but the deeper psychology that can run through our emotional centers and well-being. As I’ve spent more time in meditation and mindfulness, studyin Buddhist practices and teaching, I’ve learned and experienced the reality, that one of the greatest mental afflictions of our time is the feeling of separateness, of disconnect. Our mental disturbances are impacted even more by feelings of isolation as a product of technology—avatars, virtual realities, other unreal self-extensions via social media.
How deeply are we afflicted by our feelings of singularity in the world?
As Jack Kornfield writes, “When the Buddha confronted the question of identity on the night of his enlightenment, he came to the radical discovery that we do not exist as separate beings. He saw into the human tendency to identify with a limited sense of existence. Then he discovered that this belief in an individual small self is a root illusion. It causes suffering and removes us from the freedom and mystery of life. He described this as interdependent arising, the cyclical process of consciousness creating identity by entering form, responding to contact of the senses, then attaching to certain forms, feelings, desires, images, and actions to create a sense of self.”
When I got back to Berlin and back into crowded underground of train travel, there was the stench of sweat and cheap perfume, old beer and urine, the sounds of German and other languages I don’t understand. There was hustling and elbowing and impatience and, there was humanity. I could see the stories behind the eyes, the happiness, the darkness, the anticipation. There is a newborn seeing colors for the first time, the elderly weary and slowly pressing onward. Together, we ebb and flow, moving with the same bumps and brakes, we nod together, like a church choir, and travel, like a river, flowing through it all.
It reminded me of this passage from Rumi, “Day and night, I guarded the pearl of my soul. Now in this ocean of pearling currents, I’ve lost track of which one was mine.”