“Why do people like cars so much?” my friend asked me over coffee the other day. She has moved back to the city we both grew up in after seventeen years of living in Boston and New York, where taking public transportation, biking, and walking is the norm. She is used to having freedom from car insurance payments and rising gas prices. She is used to having freedom from the road rage caused by rush hour traffic and freedom for reading her favorite book while others do the driving.
While my friend asked her question rather rhetorically, I did start thinking about it seriously. In the United States, there are over 250 million passenger vehicles on the road for our estimated 314 million people. Clearly we love our cars! But why?
The first two answers that come to mind are “C” words: comfort and convenience. If you take public transportation, bike, or walk, you have to prepare for and deal with the elements: snow, rain, wind, hot sun. If you take your car, you can turn on the heat or the AC (and you may even be able to use increasingly common features like heated seats, heated steering wheels, climate control zones, and the like) and slouch back into your cushy chair. If you take public transit, bike, walk, or even carpool, it might take you longer to get somewhere, you might need to plan ahead more, and you might even need to adjust your schedule slightly to meet the needs of others or to catch the right train. But if you have your own car, you can go anywhere whenever you want.
I remember leaving the car about three feet from the curb parallel parking on my second attempt at the driver’s test, just to make sure I passed. No more waiting on dad to come pick me up from softball practice. No more having to beg mom to take me shopping for that one item that I was sure would complete an outfit I was working on. No more hoping that my parents did not have any plans so that they could drop me off and pick me up from hanging out with my friends. All I had to do was ask and then I had the freedom for moving about on my own.
I also remember coaching gymnastics in college so that I could save money to buy my first car: a used ’91 red Toyota Corolla two door hatchback. Although it was as unsexy as a red car can get, it was a reliable car with low mileage, and I felt so proud to call it my own.
Our love for cars is about more than comfort and convenience. Cars are part of important rites of passage in our society. Who doesn’t have funny stories about learning to drive with a white-knuckled parent? (My story: getting pulled over by a security guard in an empty parking lot the first time my dad let me drive. My driving was so erratic the guard thought I was drunk.) Who doesn’t remember passing their driver’s test and complaining about the picture on their license? Owning a car can be status symbol, a sign that we have “made it enough” to have our own set of wheels. Further, cars are often a part of great family memories, driving across country or maybe just across town on a family adventure that we complained bitterly about at the time but have come to relish in our memories.
While cars are part of our identity as Americans in many positive ways, I also think they point to a growing problem of individualism. When you are in a car, you do not have to interact with the rest of the world, particularly those who are different than you. In a car, you can drive past the homeless man on the corner much more easily than you can ignore the immigrant mother and her child sitting next to you on the subway. When you have a car, as I wrote above, you can go anywhere you want whenever you want without being beholden to other people.
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday that we highlight and celebrate our belief in a God who is Three. The three persons of the Trinity—God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and Holy Spirit the Sanctifier—live in relation to each other and to all that is in the universe. The fancy theological word for how the persons of the Trinity relate to each other is perichoresis. As Sister Joan explains, “Peri is the Greek word for around as in perimeter. Chor is the Greek root of the word chore, the circling we do daily to keep up our commitments. The word tries to express the indwelling, intertwining relationships of three in one love.”* Ultimately, at the heart of who God is, there is a relationship of love, of self-giving, of living in community with responsibility to others.
So what does the Trinity have to do with driving cars? We human beings are made in God’s image. I take that to mean that we are called to live in relationships of love, of self-giving, of being in community with responsibility to others. And when we get into our “car” mentality, that we can do whatever we want whenever we want, it is hard for us to live as the image of God.
Why do you think that Americans like cars so much? Why do so many people avoid taking public transit, carpooling, walking, or biking?
How can your transportation choices reflect your faith commitments?
In this coming week, how can you better live in God’s image, in community with responsibility to others?
*Joan Mitchell, Sunday by Sunday, vol. 22, no. 36, May 26, 2103.