Mak­ing my way through the neigh­bor­hood streets between home and my stu­dio today I passed a woman start­ing her motor­cy­cle. She lives in the neigh­bor­hood and I’ve seen her and her bike a few times. She’s a heavy­set woman and she rides what might best be described as a Euro­pean café rac­er. Her shape and the shape of her bike are com­i­cal­ly incon­gru­ent, some­thing I’ve noticed the oth­er times I’ve encoun­tered her. This morn­ing was no excep­tion. I saw her start­ing her bike and imme­di­ate­ly felt my judg­ment start to come up.

There’s no good rea­son for me to have any judg­ment at all about her. I’ve nev­er spo­ken with her and I don’t know any­thing about her. The judg­ment was sim­ply a juve­nile moment of inter­nal mockery—a moment in my mind of which I’m not proud.

At the same time, I react­ed almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly doing what I always do when I see anoth­er motor­cy­clist: I waved. Those of you who don’t ride motor­cy­cles might not get the sig­nif­i­cance of this. It’s not that it’s all that sig­nif­i­cant, but it’s what motor­cy­clists do: we wave. I guess it’s sort of like how Corvette own­ers used to blink their head­lights at one anoth­er on the road. There’s a lit­tle more to it; some rid­ers have called it a salute to oth­ers who are shar­ing the same risks and rewards by rid­ing on two wheels. Oth­ers say it’s an acknowl­edg­ment by motor­cy­clists, who are too often unno­ticed by dri­vers on four wheels, that we see one anoth­er. How­ev­er you inter­pret it, it’s more than just hel­lo. The wave is a ges­ture shared between mem­bers of a group with a sense that we have to watch out for one another.

A fun­ny thing hap­pened, then. Imme­di­ate­ly, I no longer saw her as a com­ic fig­ure or some­one to be looked down on. She was a fel­low rid­er. What I find sur­pris­ing is that the action pre­ced­ed the thought. It was as though act­ing with respect cre­at­ed the men­tal frame­work in which I could actu­al­ly have respect. Along with it came an imme­di­ate sense of relief, as though the mock­ing in my head were an annoy­ing noise that sud­den­ly stopped.

Too often we think of our actions, our ges­tures, and our words only as expres­sions of our inter­nal beliefs or atti­tudes. Cer­tain­ly they are expres­sions, but they also have the capac­i­ty to guide us. In doing what is right we dis­cov­er that what­ev­er it was that might have pre­vent­ed right action, whether it be fear or anger or indif­fer­ence, just isn’t there. By act­ing the way we believe we should, we can start to believe in our actions.

This morn­ing’s encounter was over in a few sec­onds, but the mem­o­ry and sig­nif­i­cance of it stayed with me through the day and now I’m writ­ing about it in the evening. It might well be a mis­take to attach too much sig­nif­i­cance to this wave and my change of thoughts, but I think it might be a big­ger mis­take to attach too little.

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