by Becky De Oliveira—
For several months now, I have operated in flagrant disregard of the signs on the pedestrian path near my house that I use for running. There is a large-scale construction operation underway on the intersection of Highway 52 and Colorado Boulevard—I’ve heard rumors it may continue for more than a year.
The signs declare the path “Closed at Hwy 52.” But I run at 5:30 in the morning and there is generally no one around to observe as I slip between the bulldozers and over the choppy dirt—only about 50 feet—to where the path resumes, paved as normal, still “closed” but exactly the same as it is when “open.” Occasionally, when I return to cross the same 50 feet the workmen have started to arrive, but no one has ever questioned me. No one, that is, until this past Friday when the tall workman, who often harasses my teenage son for crossing that same section on his way home from school, hollered at me from his truck. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” he said. “The path is closed.”
“How else am I to get back to my house?” I retorted. “I live over there,” I added, gesturing at the housing development on the other side of the highway.
“There’s a detour through Frederick,” he said, referring to a town that is on the wrong side of the highway—a town that is not where I live and that is significantly out of my way.
“That makes no sense,” I said arrogantly. “It’s the wrong direction. I don’t live there. It’s miles out of my way.”
“Well, if you’re out here trying to get exercise, maybe it would be good for you,” he snapped, and I almost lost it. I really don’t like it when people tell me what to do and, worse, when they get sarcastic.
“Thanks,” I said, waving my arm dismissively. “You’ve been sohelpful.” The light changed and I continued my run—right between the bulldozers. My anger fueled the last third of a mile, and by the time I got home I was so ramped up that I immediately got into an argument with my husband about the lawn mower. I fumed all morning and determined that I would simply have to make sure I got out for my run early enough that the workman would never see me trespassing through his site. Problem solved.
Later that same day, I spotted a car in my neighborhood with a bumper sticker that read, “My rights don’t end where your feelings begin.” This is the kind of aggressive statement typical of my neighborhood, a place where people fly Don’t Tread on Me flags and seem to be in a constant state of reactionary rage against someone or something they believe is trying to infringe on their rights. My next door neighbor refers to me as “that woman with all the liberal stickers on her car” when my car (a Prius) has three marathon stickers and a Free Cascadia sticker—a sentiment that in and of itself I’m not sure I could place with confidence on the political spectrum.
But the rights/feelings sticker made me stop and think—not just about the ignorant aggression of the sentiment but the equal stupidity of the opposite statement that may have inspired it: “Your rights end where my feelings begin.” (This is a good example of why it is important to avoid a life philosophy that can be placed on a bumper sticker.) I thought about the construction man, a guy I’d taken to referring to in my head as “meth head” when in fact I don’t know the first thing about him or his daily habits and have no reason to suspect methamphetamine use. What are my rights? What are his rights? What are our respective feelings? Maybe I have the right to run where I choose—but in fact I have no idea whether I have this right or not. I probably don’t. Perhaps he has the right to set rules about his construction site and expect them to be followed courteously by the local people who will perhaps benefit from it. We both have feelings: anger, irritation, and the feeling of being disrespected by the other person being the ones that are most obvious.
I made a decision in that moment, and the next afternoon, a Sabbath, I took a walk and found the pedestrian detour he’d referred to and followed it. The next morning I used it as the first portion of my running route and simply readjusted the rest of my route. It wasn’t hard at all; it was no big deal. “A soft answer,” the Bible says, “turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1, NKJV). So does an evaluation of rights and feelings that considers people other than oneself and that tries to avoid reaction and indignant insistence on being right. So yeah, I caved. I demonstrated weakness. I let him win. I did all those things. I don’t regret it, not any of it.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.