One day last week I was on my way home on the bike path when I passed a gentleman walking by himself. I wasn't paying any particular attention to my ride: I was thinking about other things, not trying to make great time, just idly peddling down the slight grade west of Lexington center. As I came up next to the man, the only other person in sight on the path, I moved well over into the opposite lane to give him plenty of room, just like I had for the last, oh, 20 or 30 walkers I'd passed already over my ten-mile commute. Only this one did something different. As I came up to go around him he called out crisply, without turning around, "on your right!" A second later, as I went by, he followed up with an equally assured "thank you!"
Now, while cyclists will immediately understand what he was going for, those of you who spend less time around aficionados of two-wheeled recreation might be a little confused. Briefly: there's a custom among certain cyclists—mostly bearded commuters on steel frames and the occasional eager bibbed and jerseyed road rider—to call out a friendly (usually) "on your left!" to other riders they pass. I do it myself, in narrow confines: it's good practice to let other folks know you're there when they might be startled or get in your way otherwise. This gentleman's "on your right" therefore was a condemnation of my failure to let him know that I was on his left. It couldn't possibly serve any other purpose: if he honestly thought I didn't know he was there he would have gotten out of the way or, at the very least, said something more to the point. No, it was an accusation!
And let me say, I want to wholeheartedly and unreservedly apologize to him. I wish I had stopped to do just that, but I was so startled and befuddled that I was a couple hundred yards further on before the thought of contrition bubbled to the top of my brain, and I figured it would be awkward to stop and wait for him to come up to me again. It might even have looked confrontational, which I didn't want at all—because, as I said, I was totally sorry for not warning him I was coming. It wouldn't have cost me anything to do just that; I in no way object to the idea of letting each and every person I need to pass that I'm about to go by them. I don't feel that it's at all necessary in every case, sure, but if I had any idea that this individual wanted me to warn him I would have done so with pleasure.
At the same time, though, I kind of feel bad for him. His non-warning—and his non-thanks—was so crisp and pat that I'm sure he must have done the same thing to every cyclist who passed him, that day and every other day. Which means that cyclists not warning him is like a thing with him, a burden of frustration and anger that he has to bear constantly. Can you imagine walking on a smoothly paved path through woods and marshes, with birds calling and leaves falling around you; but instead of taking in your surroundings, or losing yourself in your own thoughts, you're listening carefully for the quiet sounds of a bicycle behind you, ready to unleash your perfectly-timed rebuke and feel the potent rush of justification as yet another person fails to live up to your ideals of common decency.
I spent the rest of my ride worrying about where in my life I'm acting like this gentleman. I think I feel a lot like that while I wait at crosswalks on winding suburban arteries and watch driver after driver zip by with, at best, an apologetic shrug. I almost want the cars not to stop: my self-righteousness is a better reward even then getting where I want to go. Which is foolishness, as I sometimes recognize—especially when I'm all set to blast a driver with a sarcastic wave and they see me and brake to a sudden stop. Self-righteousness evaporating in the glare of reality is never a pleasant feeling.
I'm sure I do the same sort of thing more subtly in lots of other ways too. I have some strong opinions, you might have noticed. But my encounter with the gentleman on the bike path helped me realize how unhelpful that kind of thinking is for everyone involved. When you act that way you spend more time angried-up and itching for a fight—and at the same time you don't do anything to really improve the problem that upset you in the first place.
I'm not, for example, going to start hitting everyone I pass with an "on your left". On balance, I still think it's more irritating than not, and it'd take reasoned argument and maybe some survey data to convince me otherwise. I won't even warn this particular gentlemen next time, because I have no recollection of what he looks like beyond that he was wearing, I think, a brown jacket. Of course, I can't think of any better way he might carry on his crusade—maybe put up some stickers?—but I think when you reach the point of weighing ineffectual angry action against no action at all, it might be better to do nothing.