Praying for perspective: A lesson in humility at traffic court

This driver in a hurry doesn’t see himself ‘as being as bad or as guilty as any of those people,’ until the Holy Spirit intervenes

By George Valadie

I’m hoping to do better this time because last year my Advent season didn’t begin soon enough. Yes, I know the season has an official Sunday beginning, but life reminded me that four weeks of reflection and readiness weren’t nearly enough.

Maybe this year.

The Advent preparation I so desperately needed began the week before Thanksgiving when I was running late for an off-campus meeting.

I need your imagination here. Late November, traffic everywhere, speeding too much, dodging, swerving, and cutting people off. Yeah, I was that guy. Now picture a right turn onto a “free-for-all” four-lane highway.

I drive this route almost daily, so it’s not that tough to merge into the flow, but because of the left-hand turn that was soon to follow, I needed to cross over the first three lanes to get all the way to the fourth. And on this particular stretch of highway, that’s just not happening.

Except I caught a break – I saw what seemed like a manageable opening (with “seemed like” being the relevant words here). I miscalculated my driving skill, the traffic flow, and the size of the opening that awaited me on that inside lane.

So oops! there I was, caught at the light with the front half of my car in No. 4, back half in No. 3, blocking both. With beads of sweat on my forehead, the sort you get when you’re sure the world is staring at you, I sheepishly turned my head to check who and how many I had inconvenienced.

Fully, expecting the glares of unhappy drivers, it was worse. I couldn’t decide if the policeman was snarling at my car, my driving, or the cell phone on which I was talking.

Sure enough, he cranked up his blue lights, and I could envision a ticket for “reckless driving” or more likely one for “endangering just about everybody.” I couldn’t blame him; I deserved it. If not for this, then for my earlier driving.

But he floored me: “Sorry to pull you over, but your tag’s expired. Normally I’d just give you a warning, but yours expired last August.”

“August!, really??” Head hung low, all I could say was, “What do you think it’s gonna cost me?”

“Probably nothing, just show up with a new tag, and they’ll probably toss it out when you go to court. Have a great Thanksgiving.”

Oh, Lord. Court. The courthouse. The place where all the bad people have to go. Where I now had to go.

I got there early in hopes of a quick in and out. Me and every other Chattanooga maniac-driving criminal. Imagine a line for free Super Bowl tickets; I was at the back of it.

There are several available courtrooms, but turns out that everyone in my line was headed into the same one, all scheduled for the exact same hour. So I had plenty of time to take in my surroundings – and the people in it.

Though I was yet to realize it, my arrogance had actually begun even before I left home that day. I knew I’d be going to the courthouse, and I pictured the sort of people I might encounter there, so in spite of the winter chill, I chose to wear less than my best.

Nancy had given me a really nice overcoat, I mean really nice. And I decided that if I wore it, my appearance would suggest to the poor I might encounter that I could help them. And honestly, I just get really uncomfortable when approached by those I commonly think of as beggars. So I left the coat at home.

Seriously, how embarrassing – no, how sinful is that!

With the ticket line creeping slowly, I had ample opportunity to wonder what each of my fellow lawbreakers had done. I guessed most of us had violated one traffic law or another. But there were others who passed us in the hallways – headed to other courtrooms for other offenses.

Proudly (or should I say “self-righteously”), I just didn’t see myself as being as bad or as guilty as any of those people. Even those whose tags had expired just like mine. Embarrassing to admit, but I assumed what I assumed based solely on how they looked.

I studied their clothes and their shoes, their coats and their haircuts. Some were ratty and rumpled, more than a few were unkempt and unclean. A good number didn’t look as if they had the money to buy food, much less settle a traffic ticket.

It was obvious that times were tough for quite a few. And face-to-face with such need, I committed the most arrogant sin of all. Instead of reaching out to help, or even taking a moment to consider the possibility, I instead spent most of my time in that line proudly convinced that I wasn’t just better off … but that I was just better.

I can’t recall what inspired my revelation. Perhaps the Holy Spirit swooped in to slap me in the head – or the soul. But suddenly, while standing in that same line, I was overcome with a shameful embarrassment for the things I had been thinking.

How did I get so self-important? When had I lost all sense of humility?

After all, the Lord of Lords chose to be born into the meager home of a carpenter. He preferred to be king without castle who embraced the downtrodden, literally.

He hammered on the advantaged, too, not because they owned so much, but because they grasped so little – failing to appreciate all they had, all that mattered, and from whom all their blessings had come.

He hammered on people like me.

Dear God – It’s hard to prepare for He whom we cannot understand. Please send him anyway. Amen. 


George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *