A few years ago I stuck a peace sign on the back of my car. It was uncharacteristic of me. I’m not a bumper-sticker guy, never had one, and I’ve never pledged allegiance to a college or university on a car window. But there it is — about the size of a volleyball, on the back of my silver-gray Subaru Forester — a dark red peace sign despite my wife’s mild protests.
I agreed with her that we are not people to paste slogans and witticisms on our cars as a means of self-expression, and the complexities of political issues and candidates have always prevented us from public testimonials in anyone’s behalf. And my wife does not share my Boomer generation mindset, so my playful nostalgia for a time long-gone had no appeal for her.
Still, a few years ago this little store in a little Vermont town was selling them. And, I explained, there were plenty of bumper stickers out there expressing anger and righteousness, making me feel like the world was getting crowded with loud, mad, bullying voices. And so, I continued, I am heartened when I see a car whose bumpers vote for a smiling generosity of spirit and the wellbeing of the planet.
A peace sign is a nice way of saying, “I’m with you, man. I’m on your side,” and it might buoy others into believing there are other like-minded folks out there, making the world a little warmer. It was time in the liturgy of life for the sign of peace.
Besides, I thought, who could oppose peace?
I really pondered this one. Would this be interpreted as a protest of the Iraq war? Did it denote a lack of support for our good troops abroad? So I thought of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and his urging us to be peaceful people. And I figured soldiers, too, are for peace. At least I like to think that the aim of warfare — at least U.S. military action — is ultimately peace. Peace is worth fighting for.
There have been a few self-conscious moments. Like the fact that I often eat at a sandwich place where Army recruiters sit at the table next to mine, and we park our cars alongside each other. Or once sharing proximate vehicular space at a drive-in with a grizzled biker flying MIA-POW banners and other Vietnam insignias. I know full well how loaded all this symbolism may be for veterans of that war.
But nothing has ever been said to me — although juxtapositions such as these have made me think a lot about war and peace. Usually my inner dialogue ends with, “It’s just a peace sign. Aren’t we all for peace? If you knew me, you’d know I mean no disrespect for those who fight for peace. On the contrary. But don’t we all want peace in our lives? What’s wrong with a little sign that says, ‘I wish you peace’?”
Sometimes somebody flips a peace sign my way, but so far no other statement one way or the other. I’ve probably spent a lot more time thinking about all this than any passing motorist. And that’s been the single most interesting development of my wearing a peace sign on my car.
And that’s because, when you’re driving and you claim to stand for peace, you really have to watch yourself — the honking horn and your own finger gestures and your own bellicose yelling. There’s a certain uncomfortable irony when the driver of a peace-sign vehicle erupts into road rage or uses his car as a torpedo to block the path of a haughty SUV. Just a couple of weeks ago my wife blurted, “Way to go, Peace-Sign Man,” when I shot my horn at the driver who cut us off in speeding traffic (when I easily could’ve let him in).
Do I stand for peace or not?
No doubt, despite what the icon stands for, I have engaged in aggressive, get-even, not-to-me-you-don’t driving behaviors. Doing so, I have come to understand a thing or two about hypocrisy. And I have better understood the pressures on those who live as role models, or who wear a Roman collar, or represent a group of people, or arrogantly criticize others. I’ve also gotten a glimpse of the need to live up to exemplary positions. Bearing these standards should make us better.
I think the magnetic peace sign on my car has had a real effect on my behavior behind the wheel. I’m a nicer driver. I actually try to live up to the principles and ideals of that symbol, letting other cars in front of me, not tailgating the people who pull out in front of me, not shaking my fist at incompetently slow drivers. I’m more laid back, more understanding, more forgiving — at least most of the time.
It’s funny how posting that sign as a message to others has really spoken more loudly to me, that old thing about practicing what you preach. But I don’t think it’s my imagination that other drivers have been kinder to me, too.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.