You may or may not know that my major in college was Sociology. Why sociology? I can’t say exactly. At that stage of life I knew I was headed to seminary and I guess to a certain extent I viewed a college degree as a necessary step in that process. So, in a way, the major I chose was somewhat secondary to simply getting my diploma.
Having said that, I have been surprised over the years at how fascinating the study of sociology can be. Sociology is the scientific study of societies, their origins and processes of development. And, as Growing Hope seeks to try to have a positive impact in many different parts of the world, I have found my background in sociology an important asset in trying to understand the circumstances and realities of other cultures and societies in the world – where they came from and why things are the way they are today.
But, on a much smaller scale I also see the value of sociology as I simply observe the everyday world around me. And, as you can guess, I had such an opportunity just the other day. And, as the title of this blog post implies, it was, to me, quite fascinating….
Here’s what happened: I was driving my usual route from Fairfield, IA to southern Minnesota, headed through Des Moines. This route takes me on IA Hwy 163 into Des Moines, just south of Altoona, right past South Polk High School. If you know this stretch of road, you know that there are a number of intersections controlled by stop-and-go lights.
Well, for some reason unbeknownst to me, on that particular day all of those traffic lights on that stretch of road were not working. You know how sometimes when there is a glitch with the traffic lights, all of the lights will simply blink red, signaling all drivers to stop before proceeding through the intersection. Well, this was more than that. The lights were not blinking red. They were all off – completely. There were no lights whatsoever. It was very bizarre. And, I concluded that this must have happened shortly before I got to town because normally under such circumstances there would have been four-way stop signs placed in the middle of the intersections to bring order to the roadway. But, there had been no signs placed. And, in fact, there was only one police car parked at only one intersection. And, he didn’t seem to be there to direct traffic, but was in his squad car on the telephone, undoubtedly communicating with someone about the problem with the lights.
The thing that I found so fascinating is that as I, and countless others, journeyed down this road that is normally controlled by traffic lights, at every intersection, every driver, without exception, came to a complete stop. It was really rather amazing. I think I drove through four intersections at which the traffic lights were completely out, no stop signs in sight, no police officer directing traffic, and yet no one took this as an opportunity to “sneak”, or barrel, through the intersection. On the contrary, it was almost as if drivers were more courteous. Certainly more cautious.
To tell you the truth, my first thought was not of my sociology textbooks, but rather a favorite book from my childhood – Pippi Longstocking! If you are familiar with Pippi Longstocking, you know that she basically raised herself. Her mother had died and her father was the captain of a ship. So, she was home alone a lot. She tended to her own needs and even spanked herself if her behavior merited it. This occasion of no traffic lights conjured up images of Pippi driving the streets of Des Moines, taking it upon herself to drive with caution when left to her own devices.
But, once I moved beyond the Pippi Longstocking image, I started thinking about the various countries I have spent time in over the course of my life, and the traffic I have encountered in those various countries. I recall walking to the shopping mall in Bogota, Colombia and joking about the video game “Frogger.” I remember seeing a police officer pull over a driver in the Dominican Republic and wondering to myself, “of all the people breaking a multitude of traffic laws every SECOND, what made this driver stand out?” And, I can still picture tiny cars parked haphazardly on the sidewalks in Paris.
I won’t say that Americans are better drivers than people in other countries. It’s no small miracle that I have only gotten one moving violation in all my years behind the wheel. But, I will say this, that the experience driving through Des Moines the other day, when all those traffic lights were out, and all the drivers took it upon themselves to show an extra measure of order, was to me a microcosm of what author Thomas Friedman has referred to as “the golden straightjacket.” This refers to those unspoken things within our society that we have agreed are important for us to observe in order for us to experience certain comforts as a nation.
How often have you driven down the road and seen a driver on the wrong side of the road for no apparent reason? Or, have you ever taken note of how we take seriously those little dashes and lines in the middle of the road? You would think they were steel walls. How often have you seen someone cross those lines?
Yes, this was a fascinating exercise in sociology for me that day driving through Des Moines, seeing all those drivers impose their own self-restraint when they could have taken it as an opportunity to throw all the rules literally “out the window.”
For all of our struggles as a nation, we should be proud of living in a land in which the golden straightjacket is so willingly embraced for the good of all.