Forty-one years ago I climbed into the driver’s seat of an
18-wheel semi-truck with my beautiful wife, Jan, and our infant son, Scotty. We
were taking a heavy load of construction materials across several states.
In those days there were no seat-belt restrictions or infant car
seats. My wife held our precious son in her arms. Her comment “We sure are high
off the ground” should have given me a clue about her feelings of apprehension.
As we made our descent over historic Donner Pass, a steep
section of highway, the cab of the semi suddenly and unexpectedly filled with
thick smoke. It was difficult to see, and we could hardly breathe.
With a heavy rig, brakes alone are not enough to rapidly
decrease speed. Using the engine brakes and gearing down, I frantically
attempted to stop.
Just as I was pulling to the side of the road, but before we had
come to a full stop, my wife opened the door of the cab and jumped out with our
baby in her arms. I watched helplessly as they tumbled in the dirt.
As soon as I had the semi stopped, I bolted from the smoking
cab. With adrenaline pumping, I ran through the rocks and weeds and held them
in my arms. Jan’s forearms and elbows were battered and bleeding, but
thankfully she and our son were both breathing.
I just held them close as the
dust settled there on the side of the highway. As my heartbeat normalized and I caught my breath, I blurted
out, “What in the world were you thinking? Do you know how dangerous that was?
You could have been killed!”
She looked back at me, with tears running down her smoke-smudged
cheeks, and said something that pierced my heart and still rings in my ears: “I
was just trying to save our son.”
I realized in that moment she thought the engine was on fire,
fearing the truck would explode and we would die. I, however, knew it was an
electrical failure—hazardous but not fatal. I looked at my precious wife,
softly rubbing the head of our infant son, and wondered what kind of woman
would do something so courageous.
This situation could have been as emotionally hazardous as our
literal engine failure. Gratefully, after enduring the silent treatment for a
reasonable amount of time, each of us believing the other person was at fault,
we finally expressed the emotions that were churning beneath our heated outbursts.
Shared feelings of love and fear for the other’s safety kept the hazardous
incident from proving fatal to our cherished marriage.
We all regularly experience highly charged feelings of anger—our
own and others’. We have seen unchecked anger erupt in public places. We have
experienced it as a sort of emotional “electrical short” at sporting events, in
the political arena, and even in our own homes.
Children sometimes speak to beloved parents with tongues as
sharp as blades. Spouses, who have shared some of life’s richest and most
tender experiences, lose vision and patience with each other and raise their
voices. All of us have regretted jumping headlong from the high seat of
self-righteous judgment and have spoken with abrasive words before we understood
a situation from another’s perspective. We have all had the opportunity to
learn how destructive words can take a situation from hazardous to fatal.
However, to love and treat all people with kindness and
civility—even when we disagree is powerful and sorely needed in today’s world.
We can and should participate in continuing civil dialogue, especially when we
view the world from differing perspectives.
The writer of Proverbs counsels, “A soft answer turneth away
wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
A “soft answer” consists of a reasoned response—disciplined words from a kind
heart. It does not mean we never speak directly or that we compromise truth.
Words that may be firm in information can be soft in delivery.
Too many time, though, the language of anger and doubt and blame
is used—a language in which the entire human race seems to be surprisingly
There exists today a great need for men and women to cultivate
respect for each other across wide distances of belief and behavior and across
deep canyons of conflicting agendas. It is impossible to know all that informs
our minds and hearts or even to fully understand the context for the trials and
choices we each face.
Fully owning the limits of my own imperfections and rough edges,
I plead with you to practice asking this question, with understanding regard
for another’s experience: “What are you thinking?”
When our truck cab filled with smoke, my wife acted in the
bravest manner she could imagine to protect our son. I too acted as a protector
when I questioned her choice. Shockingly, it did not matter who was more right.
What mattered was listening to each other and understanding the other’s
The willingness to see through each other’s eyes will transform
a misunderstanding into true communication. Each of us can experience this,
too. It may not change or solve the problem, but the more important possibility
may be whether true understanding can change us.
As we practice decency and professionalism through compassionate
language by having empathy for the feelings and context of others; It enables
us to transform hazardous situations into learning moments.
Adapted from an article by w. Craig Zwick