I have to admit, I was a bit worried upon retiring this project a few weeks back, how it would be to not have a big project to work on. After all, since late 2009 when I signed up for my first Friends for Life Bike Rally I’ve had some sort of big project going, always with a large “culminating event” at the end. And at the end of each of my projects, there would be a wave of sadness that would hit me. “The project is over and I have nothing else to work for.” And then, for several weeks I would be in a funk, waiting for inspiration to hit, wondering if that last project would be the Last Good Idea I would have until I was rescued by a new idea that I would get even more excited about. So imagine my nervousness as I went forth, not into the welcoming arms of a new project, but into the unknown. So what have I been doing? Well, feeding wolves, of course:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil – It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is Good – It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
My thought going into the summer has been that this is not just true for our emotions but for our perceptions as well. If 500 Kindnesses taught me anything it is this: We create the world we live in. I don’t mean this in the sense that some do: that somehow our imagination can be manifested in physical form if we just believe hard enough. What I found is that, our impression of the world we live in is built based on what we choose to focus on. What we’re feeding ourselves as it were.
I thought, when starting this project, that the purpose was to encourage people to perform acts kindness. And there’s no doubt that it did that. But what it also did was make a focal point for me to see on a daily basis just how many kind human beings there were. Pledges of all sorts came in regularly, friends who would see articles and videos about kindness would share them with me, and I met dozens of new people all of whom were doing acts of kindness on such a regular basis that they didn’t even think of it as kindness anymore but “being human.” And so, kindness became something that was constantly there in the background of everything I was doing. Outrageous political news would come and go, but kindness was a constant. Personal challenges would come up and pass, and kindness kept happening. Disasters and tragedies would occur, and still behind it there was the constant pulse of kindness like a reassuring heartbeat beneath it all. By the time I got to the end of the project my outlook had changed. There are people and sometimes organizations who do horrific things, but humanity is kind.
And so, after this project my next experiment has been to focus my energy on things that I want to see my perceptions about change. The projects range from subtle changes that take no time at all to work that takes a few hours a week.
Cycling: While I’m not doing a long bike ride this summer, I’m still using my bike for transportation around the city. What I have found is that in Toronto cycling has a pretty wide spectrum of enjoyment. The high points are pretty good: There’s nothing like riding across town on a nice summer night, seeing people out walking, hearing the occasional street musician, smelling the foods of a hundred different cultures cooking as you pass from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. On the other end, though, it can be pretty unpleasant. Some drivers can be inattentive and not notice you’re there as they make a turn, other drivers can be dangerously aggressive. I remember being passed dangerously close by a man in a minivan on a busy street who chose to get as close as he could to me rather than change lanes. I caught up to him a block or two later and he told me that he did it because I was supposed to be in the bike lane. Never mind that there were no bike lanes for miles around. I’d say for every couple of weeks of good riding there would be some driver interaction that would be upsetting enough to stick with me for hours later.
The change I made here was subtle. Normally as a cyclist I tend to ride pretty quickly – in many cases downtown I am able to keep up with automobile traffic and I would take main roads because they would get me to where I was going quickly. So in this case the change I made was to take the advice I’d often wish I could give to impatient drivers behind me: Don’t worry about getting there quite so fast.
And so the first obvious change was to change my routes. Now a city, being a city – at least a North American one, sometimes requires riding on a busy street to get where you’re going. But surprisingly often, there are alternatives that will, admittedly, take longer. In my neighbourhood I’m extremely lucky in that we have a number of quiet residential streets and even laneways that barely see any traffic. And so I started taking those when I could instead of main roads. I even made a map of some of my favourites. The results were really great. I made several trips to the spin studio I work out at about a mile from home and there were times I wouldn’t see another car until I got on the main road that the studio was on. And of course many of my trips are filled with artwork, some with lovely messages like this:
The second thing I did was to care a little less about exactly how I get somewhere. Riding down a laneway is fantastic, but what happens, for example, when you get to a busy street? It’s not as if most laneways or even many residential streets have traffic lights to help you continue across safely. The only option that is visible at first to be is to watch the bike, pedestrian, car, truck, and streetcar traffic and hope for a break long enough to scoot across and dash across. Depending on traffic levels, this can be pretty stressful, and in some cases downright dangerous. But there’s a second option that presents itself when you worry a little less about saving a minute. A similar minute, I might mention, to the minute I wish many drivers would worry less about when interacting with me on the road. At that point a new option is presented: Turn right, ride down to the next traffic light (rarely more than a 30 second ride), walk across in the crosswalk, and head back to where you were and pick up the street and continue. And the stress level (as long as you don’t get into a mental rant about cycling infrastructure and the imagined attitudes of all drivers) is comparatively negligible.
So has this worked? In my case, absolutely. Riding is much more of a pleasure than it was, and I have yet to have a bad interaction with another road user. And who knows? Maybe the rate (per car) of bad interactions will be the same, but given the tiny fraction of cars that I now see in my travels, it could be quite some time before I have one on the side roads.
Will it work for you? Who knows? Where are your pain points when it comes to your mode of transportation? What assumptions do you have that you could let go? What can you do to bring more enjoyment in to your travel? What bad experiences can you let go? What good experiences can you focus on to the same degree that we seem naturally inclined to give bad experiences?