How I Learned Empathy From A “Baby On Board” Sign

A few days ago, I was rushing around town, trying to squeeze in too many errands in too little time. CVS, Home Depot, laundry, back to Home Depot for something I forgot, back home to change the laundry, and eventually to the market for some groceries. En route to the last stop, I found myself stopped at a long red light, second in line behind a minivan with a “Baby on Board” sign on its rear window.

“What a dumb sign”, I thought. As somebody who often rides with babies on board and has thus far survived without a sign advertising this fact, I wondered: “What’s the point of telling me about your baby? Do you think I was planning to plow into the back of your car with reckless abandon, but now that I see that you’ve got a baby on board I’ll just wait for the next non-baby-on-board car to run them off the road instead? Isn’t the understanding that there are humans on board enough?”

I looked back up at the light – still red – and as my eyes made their way back to the bright yellow sign on the minivan, I noticed the driver straining to reach behind him for something – or someone – in the back seat. He tried to keep one eye on the light and another on whatever he was trying to do in the back seat, but it was clear he was failing at both.

I wondered what was going on in the car. Was his baby crying, and he was trying to find a pacifier somewhere in the back seat to quell the tears? Was he reaching behind him for a stray granola bar after driving around – like me – from one place to the next, and forgetting to eat lunch?

By the time the light finally turned green, my thoughts had become fully immersed in the adult on board, no longer the baby or its associated sign. What if the message of the sign wasn’t about me driving more carefully, but rather about teaching me to live with greater empathy? What if it’s a shining yellow beacon of compassion, placed there to remind me of the everyday struggles of the human being sitting just 10 feet in front of me, but in a vastly different world than mine?

What if it’s not a sign to keep me away from his car, but instead one that can draw me close to its operator, connecting two travelers as we do our best to navigate the complex world around us? What if this diamond-shaped piece of plastic is just the reminder I need to become more forgiving, more understanding of the immense burdens carried by those around me?

And then it happened. The light finally turned green. Three seconds passed. Then two more. And no sooner did my hand rise up to honk the horn did it click for me: It doesn’t matter who’s in the car in front of me. It doesn’t matter what the yellow sign says. Baby, toddler, teenager, adult…It doesn’t matter who’s on board. All that matters is that they are human beings, and I’d be denying their very humanity if I were to assume that they weren’t somehow encumbered by the daily rigors of being human.

The very thing that makes us human is that we’re all carrying precious cargo with us. We carry the dreams of our ancestors with each step we take. We carry our present anxieties – safety, security, money, family – from sunrise to sunset, every day. And we carry our hopes for the future – ours and those of the generations to follow – to every stoplight along the way.

Who among us isn’t stressed, distracted, burdened? Who among us hasn’t spaced out at a green light? Missed a meeting because the day got away from you? Forgotten about dinner with a friend? Responded curtly to an email because time and patience were in short supply?

We’re human. Every one of us. From the ones with “Baby on Board” signs to those who travel alone. We’re all trying as hard as we can to hold in tension and love all the obligations that pull us to and fro, while trying to stay centered along the way. We’re all doing our best to weather the storms of the day, make it back to shore by night, and ensure safe passage of our precious cargo.

So next time you find yourself stuck behind a stopped car at a green light, a supermarket shopper holding up the line while talking on the phone, or anybody who in some way stands in your path or slows you down, I invite you to take a deep breath, imagine a “Human on Board” sign on their backs, and practice some Stoplight Empathy.

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