The year is young, yet I've already experienced my first 21st-century miracle.

Chugging along in the far-right lane during a recent rush hour, I noted a disabled car blocking the lane. I steeled myself for the inevitable: stopping until traffic cleared or a pitying Samaritan finally let me merge left.

But lo, an angel in an Explorer appeared in my rearview mirror. Pausing, the driver motioned me over. A stunned moment later, I slid into traffic and waved, "Thanks."

Now those who don't see this driver's generosity as miraculous must not witness the numerous acts of vehicular venality I see daily, or share my firm belief:

Merging is problematic for humans. And not just when they're driving.

I first saw merging as a metaphor for something bigger back in the '90s--remember them?--while teaching my teenage son to drive. We'd be cruising along fine until we got to a highway exit or entrance.

Nobody, it seemed, would slow down, move over or otherwise let this inexperienced driver join the flow. Many drivers sped up, blocking his entrance, causing near-collisions and terrifying us both.

How mean, I thought. How . . . human.

Merging requires courtesy and sharing, giving others--strangers, no less--a break. It means sacrificing for the greater good, treating the road as a shared adventure, viewing that split second in which you choose whether to allow someone in or to cut them off as a chance to love, or at least respect, your neighbor as yourself.

Like most mundane moments, it has sacredness in it.

So does this spanking new century. But I was so exhausted from preparing for it, and being awed by its meaning, I made no New Year's resolutions.

Yet I was surprised to discover a secret hope: that in 2000, we'd all become better at merging. A crack at a whole new hundred years seemed worth humanity making a collective effort to let the interests of others become as vital as our own. An effort to let others into the flow.

Somehow, I hoped the new century's big surprise wouldn't be the lights staying on and most computers remaining virus-free, but a mass spiritual awakening. A national urge to merge, spiritually speaking.

Reading the paper cured me. In one prominent story, scores of Americans showed their love of family values by protesting and delaying the return of a small boy to his loving father in Cuba. In another, a young pro baseball player apologized for insulting gays, immigrants, Asian American women and others in Sports Illustrated. There was the Style section takeout about a white-haired hatemonger who uses rock music to court young white supremacists.

Then there's the refusal by the two Republican presidential front-runners--one an iconoclastic war hero, the other touted for his campaign's inclusiveness--to say the Confederate battle flag should be retired from South Carolina's statehouse. Paraphrasing Sen. John McCain, I, too, understand both sides. The flag can be viewed as both a symbol of slavery and of heritage.

But how can McCain and Gov. George W. Bush let fear of political repercussions keep them from admitting the obvious: The concerns of those for whom the flag symbolizes ancestral pride can't equate to the pain of those for whom it symbolizes a system that stripped millions of their freedom and the ability even to know their ancestors' names.

New year, old insensitivities.

But the century is so young. Already, a deranged Maryland killer got enough clarity to lead police to the body of the 6-year-old girl he murdered more than 13 years ago, giving her family and community some closure.

Virginia's white Republican governor has proposed a separate holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and abandoning the current, odd arrangement in which the civil rights leader is honored on the same day as Confederate icons Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Gov. James S. Gilmore III suggests that King and the generals be honored separately--a proposal the state's black former governor floated unsuccessfully for years.

And for the first time in recent memory, a stranger unhesitatingly stopped to let me into traffic's flow.

Perhaps the changes I'm expecting from this bouncing baby century won't initially be found on the nightly news. The biggest changes start small--in suburban offices and big-city homes; on rural schoolyards and in churches everywhere. They're born in the din of rush hour, and in the quiet of one heart opening to merge with another, just to become bigger and better. Such changes are happening everywhere.

In a century so young, who knows where that could lead?