Saturday, December 17, 2016

Cyclists as a Non-anxious Presence in Traffic

Observance of signs

Exploring some of the underlying themes of this blog

Humans are easy to manipulate. Push on our common buttons, and we react predictably. Marketers and sales people, artists, cartoonists, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, doctors, pastors, police, traffic engineers, and help desk technicians all understand this, and use it to their particular ends constantly, causing us to be bombarded by all manner of stimuli designed and intended to bend our behavior to particular ends which are most often not of our own origination, creation, or will. All aspects of behavior and opinion are fair game.

The science of this has honed these methods to an effective, sophisticated, and often subtle level. I suspect that the combination of pervasiveness, effectiveness, familiarity, and intensity, applied to hungry, angry, tired, lonely, overworked, overstimulated, distracted, smart phone addicted populations, leads both to unawareness of it happening, along with apathy toward it, and acceptance of it.

The negative forms of it, used for negative ends, are the easiest to rail against. Unfortunately, they also seem the easiest to employ and the most effective in practice. Gaslighting and bullying were elevated to a winning strategy in our most recent presidential election. When you see the power of appealing to fear and anxiety, and your polling data show that by doing so you can can cause fear and anxiety to feed on themselves and make your message even more appealing, just about any message can be substituted for facts. That's the world we voters made, and we have to live with its consequences.

On another hand, recognizing the phenomenon of this manipulation, and working to understand it, in both its positive and negative aspects, seems to me like an underlying theme of this blog from the start. A theme which I only just recognized recently. The source of this recognition was a discussion I had at church, in which the pastor described the meaning of a term I don't think I have heard before: being a "non-anxious presence". Just hearing the words fired off a cascade of associations and reasoning in my mind. The religious context for the phrase is something like, amidst the overwhelming worries of the world, when the inevitable events of life strike and fill us with anxiety and fear, someone trained to be a non-anxious presence can be a powerful force for surviving what may feel like an unsurvivable event by being present there next to us in that moment. Someone named Edwin Friedman seems to have been a proponent and elaborator of this concept, via something called Family Therapy.

All interesting, I'm sure, but relevant to this blog, and specific to the italicized tagline of this post, I felt or realized suddenly that much of my thinking, feeling, and blogging has centered around the idea of trying to be a non-anxious presence in traffic, while riding my bicycle. Grabbing some of the bullet points from Friedman and Family Therapy illustrates the point, on a bicycle, in the middle of the maelstrom of vehicles:
  • Being self differentiated
  • Being non-anxious
  • Being present with those one is leading
  • the capacity to separate oneself from surrounding emotional processes
  • the capacity to obtain clarity about one’s principles and vision
  • the willingness to be exposed and be vulnerable
  • the persistence to face inertial resistance
  • the self-regulation of emotions in the face of reactive sabotage
Based on a brief reading of the above-linked articles, I would probably modify the meaning of "being self differentiated" to embrace my understanding of emotional intelligence, mood mirroring, and mimetic desire, but the basics resonate with my experiences of commuting by bicycle, as well as my thoughts or asprirations on doing it right.

Simply, and I've written variations of this so many times it's curious I didn't encounter "non-anxious presence" sooner, I think that displaying calm, rational, non-anxious behavior in traffic on a bicycle can be a very positive influence, both personally and on others.

That's all I have on this for now. More to come, I hope, as I learn more, and gain understanding from other riders out there, about how smiling, waving, and keeping calm and open no matter what, might help.


  1. I like this thinking...kind of mirrors my own simple presence, manner, and preference to move through this complicated and overstimulated world one revolution at a time. I understand your need to pinpoint why it is you feel compelled to ride... Further thoughts for consideration:

    I hope you find what it is that you seek.

    1. That is a lovely comment indeed, thank you for posting it here, anniebikes. I think most of us who ride frequently would agree with some form of the meditative or relaxing benefits of cycling. It clears and opens my mind like few other activities, and is so easily practiced. I find it rather wonderful that in all our different backgrounds, cultures, and religious paths, we can find common ground on the cycling path. I don't talk much about my own personal religious practices here, because I think I am seeking in this blog space to explore that common cycling ground and not color it with my own clumsy stumbles around the religious realm.


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