Editor’s Note: Michelle Sinclair is the daughter of columnist Melodie Davis; she is married and works in Washington, D.C. She and her husband have one son, now 9 months old.
The red Honda dirt bike belonged to my babysitter’s 13-year-old son, the brother I never had.
A green motorcycle snaked around the curve ahead of my car, and together, we pulled to a stop at the light. The boring adult in me winced at the painfully loud whine of the road rocket’s engine. I watched the guy prop one foot on the ground and tap his thigh impatiently, his helmeted head swinging back and forth as he surveyed the intersection. I eyed his helmet, hoping it was secure, and reflected how unprotected the rest of his body would be in the event of an accident.
I used to love motorcycles.
As a 5-year-old child, I reveled in the machine rumbling beneath me, latent power that needed only a twist of my wrists to be set free. The red Honda dirt bike belonged to my babysitter’s thirteen-year-old son, the brother I never had. How he got permission to give me rides, I’ll never know. I only knew that if I was very lucky, he would swing my legs over the seat, settle himself behind me, and let me reach the handles to gun the engine.
We’d tear down steep hillsides and get airborne over protruding roots, cornering around trees with dust pluming behind us. Sometimes he’d steer us perilously close to the farm pond just to make the bullfrogs complain and me squeal in fearless delight.
With him, I felt as safe as could be. He always warned me to hold my legs away from the burning engine coils, and although he let me gun the engine, he kept a firm hold so we wouldn’t lose control. Our jumps and speeds were probably mild compared to what he did on solo rides, amplified in my childhood memory to grand feats of daring-do.
But he grew older, and the bikes got bigger, and our rides became fewer and farther between. When he was fatally injured in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19, the lives of his family and ours (we were neighbors) changed forever. And my opinion of those roaring bikes took a sharp turn for the worse.
I became judgmental. Anyone I saw on a motorcycle was an idiot, needlessly risking his or her life for a cheap thrill. My memories of the dirt bike rides haunted me; the thing my friend had loved so much—what had brought us so much fun together—had taken his life. It was a hard, rough lesson for a 10-year-old to face.
It’s also tough for a 33-year-old to admit her tendency to judge hasn’t matured since she was 10.
Motorcyclists do face a higher risk of death or injury than in most other forms of transportation. Yes, some people ride recklessly. But there are also people who take every care, who respect the machine and the elements and the dangers around them. I have no right to judge them for doing the thing they love, for finding joy riding with other people and soaking in the countryside from a unique perspective.
Let’s be honest: judging other people for their choices or faults is a seductive pastime because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We’re not perfect, we say, but at least we don’t [fill in the blank]. I have a feeling it will be even harder to fight my tendency to judge as I try to raise my son to live well and make healthy decisions. That’s a tightrope made of fishing line, but I’ll try all the same.
Something in that man on the green motorcycle last week reminded me of my lost friend. Maybe it was his shoes, or his build, or just the way he sat on the bike. Whatever it was, it zapped my instinct to judge with a warm dose of empathy, which is the most powerful antidote to judgment I know.
Whenever I share the road with a motorcyclist, I’m sure I’ll still wince at the loud exhaust. I’ll hope the rider’s helmet is on tight, and that he or she can keep her bike at a safe distance from other vehicles.
But I will also try to counter my instinct to judge by taking those timeworn memories down from the shelf to enjoy them again. I may never ride a motorcycle again, but I’ll also never lose the gift my friend gave me: the joy of the wind in my face and that unforgettable purr at my heels.
How do you work at developing empathy toward those you don’t understand? Comment by emailing , or write to Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802. Or comment on the Facebook page for Another Way Newspaper Column.
Posted 9/25/2014 7:00:00 AM
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