The Miracle of Conflict

–The obstacles that block our way often steer us toward our destination

In January 2008, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a sweeping plan to ease Manhattan’s desperate traffic problems.  At the time, according to U. S. News and World Report, the number of vehicles entering downtown had been growing annually by an average of 8000 per day since the 1920s, resulting in an unsustainable critical mass.

The mayor’s plan would encourage – or coerce – commuters to rely on public transportation by imposing a daytime tax of $8 per car and $21 per truck traveling onto the island.  City officials believed that this “congestion pricing” would ultimately reduce traffic by as much as 12 ½ percent.

At first, the plan seemed a sure bet.  A broad coalition of civic, business, labor, health, and environmental organizations endorsed the plan, together with state senators, representatives, and councilmen. “Congestion pricing,” they claimed, would increase revenues, expand regional rapid transit, reduce air pollution, create jobs and, of course, ease traffic. The U.S. Department of Transportation was so enthusiastic that it had already awarded $354 million to New York to kick-start the project.  The planning commission approved the project by a vote of 13 – 2.

But the proposal generated equally passionate opposition, so much so that the state assembly failed to hold a vote by the April 7 deadline.  Opponents argued that drivers seeking to avoid the pricing zone would cause traffic to spill over into adjacent communities, that added fees would place undue burden on the middle class, that not all neighborhoods would benefit equally, and that enforcement cameras threatened civil liberties.  Despite the success of similar programs in London, Stockholm, and Singapore, the proposal died.

Would it have worked?  Probably, yes; and here’s the evidence:

Only three months later, gas prices spiked to nearly four dollars a gallon.  Simultaneously, traffic into Manhattan dropped by 5 percent, the initial target figure for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan.  A significant number of people who had fought the government’s plan willingly traded their cars for public transportation when the cost of driving became too high.

More than any other nationality, Americans love their cars.  This comes as no surprise if we consider the car as an allegory for personal autonomy.  In a very real sense, nearly all of us are control freaks; we want to feel our hands firmly on the wheel of destiny, steering our own course into the future.

But when we come to life’s crossroads, we often choose one road over the other without adequate knowledge of where either may lead.  And as we embark down the path of unanticipated danger, we may only discover much later how fortunate we were that obstacles appeared in our way to stop us in our course.  The problems, frustrations, and inconveniences we curse when they arise often prove our greatest benefactors in the end.

A young man from the country traveled to the big city to buy supplies for his father’s store.  In the city, he stayed with his uncle, on whom he relied to guide him in his business dealings.

Upon hearing of his nephew’s excited plans to sample the nightlife of the city, the uncle feared that the inexperienced young man might fall prey to unscrupulous characters and come to harm through all manner of unsavory activities.  The uncle made a number of calls to contacts throughout the city, and immediately the young man found himself so preoccupied with business that he had not a spare minute to indulge his curiosity.

At the end of his trip, the boy complained to his uncle that he had been unable to experience the city.  On the other hand, he confessed, he had done more business than he could have anticipated so that his father would surely be proud of him and give him more responsibilities in running the family store.  The uncle smiled and expressed delight that his nephew’s business had turned out so well.

Only long after the young man had returned home did it occur to him that maybe his uncle had had something to do with the remarkable success of his trip.                   

Some call it karma.  Some talk about destiny, or fate, or kismet.  In Solomon’s tradition, it is the hand of Providence that causes obstacles to spring up before us and make the paths of personal autonomy increasingly difficult to travel.  We feel stifled in our jobs, unhappy with our families, and discontented with the direction of our lives.  We perceive the natural ebb and flow of life as a continual series of roadblocks and dead ends.

So we seek out “detours,” looking for fulfillment in the least likely places:  alcohol, drugs, gambling, or adulterous affairs.  We think change will make us feel better, but we usually find ourselves worse off than before.

And even when we get it right, even when we find fulfillment in our careers, families, and communities, the paths of life are rarely without potholes; holding a straight course poses a never-ending challenge.

With every step forward, we need to weigh our options and calculate the costs and benefits, evaluate which detours are necessary and which are more hazardous than keeping to a straight but tortuous main road.

If we hit a brick wall, we have to decide whether to go under, over, around, or through it – or turn back and seek a different course altogether.

Even if we are willing to reevaluate our course constantly, we may find that repeated obstacles seem to be telling us that we should give up, when in fact we are on the verge of a breakthrough; or we may try to conquer obstacles before us again and again when in fact we have no chance of success.

But if we keep our eye on the distant goal of living our lives according to moral principles and moral discipline, then whatever detours we have to traverse and however much backtracking we have to endure, we can be confident that our efforts have not been wasted and will not be in vain.  By keeping our objective in sight and our eyes on every step, we cannot fail.

From Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages, just released in audio format.  For information, please click here.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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