When We Stop Being Polite

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I’ll never forget the experience of a third world traffic jam when, suddenly, everyone loses their mind and suddenly remembers that in the end, they are in it for themselves. 

I had just arrived in Costa Rica, it was almost 15 years ago. Costa Rica is not necessarily third world. The roads were paved. Driving culture had existed for decades. 

In the developed world, there is still enough of a middle class left to be brainwashed by the bread and circuses of abundance. Most people outside of the alternative finance believe what the powers that be tell them. That everything is fine. That inflation is 1% and not 5x or more. That we are in recovery and not one black swan from the brink of another credit crisis or an outright currency collapse. 

We were on the outskirts of San Jose, the capital, and suddenly we came upon a massively long line of cars. It must have been a few miles. After 4 hours of inching forward, we could finally see the cause.

The traffic light was out at the main intersection. And know one was taking turns. There was no order. It was a free for all. Everyone was forcing themselves into the intersection. Buses, cars, and commercial vehicles were coming within inches of each other with horns blaring. 

As I commute around a big, busy American city every morning I encounter dozens, if not more, of the same situations. Little four way crossroads where drivers must decide, often arriving at the same momentum who will go first;  in addition to honoring pedestrians who may be also be crossing and often remembering whose turn it was. 

Occasionally, I’ll witness the rogue driver who cheats and moves ahead in line. But outside of a stern look or a horn - the issue is relatively benign. 

When I think back to the Costa Rican intersection, about how quickly pandemonium ensues when one traffic light goes out, I think first off that perhaps the developed world and its abundance and security will be relatively insulated from panic and disaster when things like this start breaking. 

Fundamentally, people are not that different essentially. And when it no longer serves to be polite, when there is no more reciprocity for waiting in line, things can get ugly and uncomfortable very quickly. People stop taking turns. 

We are collectively abiding by the rules and believing the promises, however, many have been broken over time. Even though for the middle class, the traffic lights went out long ago. How long will we keep taking turns politely at the intersections?

Perhaps it is our “belief” that the promises will be kept, whereas the people in Costa Rica know better, that it is every one for himself. Trust comes from true autonomy, not broken promises that leave one scrambling for scraps.  

We have no control--only awareness that all of this is counter to the limits and the laws of nature. When power grows out of control and contrary to natural limits - it eventually butts up against them. And then something triggers the return to equilibrium. 

Power corrupts and eventually consumes itself, or there is revolution once people wake up with empty bellies.

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