Driving lessons, a metaphor for life

June 10, 2008

I have been having driving lessons for quite a while.

F: (does something stupid)

Paul (driving instructor): (kindly) Don’t worry. A lot of novice drivers do that.

F: (somewhat red in face) Paul, I had my first driving lesson in 1989.

It’s not quite as bad as I’m pretending; during those twenty years I did pass my test and get my licence. But I am not a good driver, and I am not a happy driver. I do a lot of things I’m bad at, and mostly the worst thing that can happen is that people might laugh at me. With driving, people might die.

For a long time, I have let others drive me. But I want to be able to drive. It is a grown-up thing to do. In particular, I am currently staying with my father, who is quite disabled, and we would be able to do much more together if I could drive him around. So I had a driving lesson this morning, the first for about five years.

Paul asked me at the beginning of the lesson, ‘what do you want to learn?’ And my answer was technical: parallel parking, reversing, wing mirrors. But as we pottered around country lanes and reversed around corners in cul-de-sacs, I was also observing the process: what worked and what didn’t work; how it felt. And I started to formulate a theory: the way we drive is like the way we do the rest of life.

When driving goes wrong for me, it’s not because I have to make the car go backwards or into a small space. It’s because I panic and think I can’t do something, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or because I become impatient to finish a difficult manoeuvre and go too rapidly, or because I’m stressing about what other drivers are thinking of me, or because I’m not paying attention. These are all things that I do when I’m not driving.

Similarly, I sponsor and support people in recovery from addiction, and I often notice that people do their recovery in the way that they do their life. M is diligent as hell and her step work is always wonderful, but she is a perfectionist and constantly worries that she isn’t going to enough meetings or doing enough writing. K will do anything to support newcomers and people who fear relapse, but she turns her own recovery into another form of self-punishment, as she did with her addictions. I push myself at top-speed, looking for instant results, and am always convinced I’m doing it all wrong – but my determination has never wavered, even when the road has been dark and the journey has seemed relentless and eternal. And as we progress through the steps, we grow and heal. Our recovery changes. And our lives change.

Today’s driving was better than it’s ever been for me. And I think that’s because I’m gradually becoming calmer. I’m more able to slow down, more able to let myself be imperfect, more able to bounce back quickly when I didn’t do something right, rather than continuing to beat myself up about it for the rest of the lesson. There’s a way to go yet – apart from anything else, I do have to learn how to manoeuvre the damn car into the parking space – but, for the first time I can see light at the end of the tunnel.


14 Responses to “Driving lessons, a metaphor for life”

  1. Sarah Jane Says:

    I hate driving. I am a perfectly competent if somewhat cautious driver; I own a car and I drive it a couple of times a month, probably, because there are too many places around where I live that are difficult to get to by public transport (and also because taking a recycling box full of bottles to the bottle bank, or picking up some grow-bags from the garden centre, would be infinitely more difficult by any other method). But I hate it. Partly, this is because of the emissions, but it’s also because I hate the mindset of driving. I hate being shut into my own little world where other people barely impinge, where everyone is focused on reaching their destination as soon as possible. I hate the way I find myself thinking about the person driving in front of me at 30mph in a 40 zone, or indicating and slowing and then changing their mind, as a hindrance and an annoyance.

    I don’t want to live the rest of my life like I drive. I want to be thoughtful and considerate towards other people. I want to be part of society. I want to be able to stop and take in my surroundings and not just focus on the destination. Which, I suppose, is why I drive as little as possible. But I only do it when I really have to.

  2. Francesca Says:

    I don’t want to live the rest of my life like I drive

    To what extent do you believe you live the rest of your life like you drive?

    To what extent do you believe that you could change how you drive?

  3. Sarah Jane Says:

    I don’t think I do live the rest of my life like I drive. It’s true that I am not terribly interested in other people, and perhaps I am also rather too focused on getting places (although I’m trying to change that), but I don’t think I’m as self-obsessed or as negative in life as I am in driving. (I have encountered lots of people who live their lives exactly as I drive; they are not people I would choose to spend much time with).

    Could I change the way I drive? Probably, but I suspect I would end up spending even more time than I already do boxed in on motorways or waiting at junctions with cars honking their horns behind me, which would make it an even more miserable experience than it is anyway.

  4. Amelia Eve Says:

    A lot of people forget that driving is a physical activity. Like playing a musical instrument, it requires both intellectual understanding and patterned movement. The more you drive, the more instinctual the patterned movements become, freeing you to concentrate on the decision-making aspects of following your route and interacting with the road and other drivers. One of the handicaps for many new drivers is not training consistently in one car. Using the same car regularly helps you learn the patterning more quickly and gives you greater confidence that can get you into a “flow” state more quickly.

    I’ve been driving for more than 30 years, though I haven’t owned a car since 1995. Borrowing friends’ cars or using rentals, it always takes me a little while to orient myself so I can work more automatically with the machine. I take a few minutes to just sit in the drivers’ seat and check out the location of the headlight switch, the windshield wiper controls, heating and cooling, and any other systems the car has. Even then, once I’m on the road I still need to get the feel for how big the car is, where the blind spots are, and how to park it.

    A friend told me that when he was learning to touch type, he’d mime out the finger movements of typing the dialogue when he watched TV. You might try mock-driving when you are a passenger. Watch the road and think about when you’d put on the turn signal, when you would slow down or speed up, when you’d shift gears, etc. It can be a helpful exercise to get you thinking more like a driver.

    Good luck!

  5. coughingbear Says:

    I’m glad the lesson went well. I like driving, mostly, though I find it very tiring to do long journeys, because of the level of concentration required (as you say, knowing that the worst thing that can happen is not just people laughing at you is quite stressful).

    more able to bounce back quickly when I didn’t do something right
    I learned this (to the extent that I have learned it) from singing. One conductor used to point out to us regularly that the difference between us and professionals was not that professionals didn’t make mistakes, it was that they immediately discarded their mistakes and concentrated on the next thing. Also they don’t apparently make faces at the audience. I remember realising one day that I had to do exactly the same thing when driving, because obsessing about the mistake I’d just made meant it was far likelier I’d make another one, or wouldn’t respond appropriately when someone else did.

  6. Francesca Says:

    Yes, exactly that. Someone has a very good description of learning as ‘the process of moving from failure to failure as quickly as possible without losing heart’. I’ve never been able to track down the source, but I do like it.

  7. John Says:

    more able to bounce back quickly when I didn’t do something right

    That’s certainly the key to maintaining one’s sanity while refereeing. (Well that and knowing that 90%+ of the spectators and players second guessing you are completely clueless as opposed to merely fallible).

  8. callmemadam Says:

    This is so interesting. I’m a perfectly competent driver, use the car nearly every day and would be lost and very limited in my doings without it. Yet I am very frightened of driving anywhere new, especially if I don’t know where I am to park, and start to feel panicky more than a certain distance from home. I’m also very bad at directions and easily get lost: too much signage everywhere, I think, which confuses me. This is bonkers and limiting but I suppose all part of anxiety, in which case yes, driving is like life.

  9. Francesca Says:

    I agree with you.

    The really interesting thing for me was realising that my driving had changed only because I had changed, rather than because I had developed any new experience or skill – in fact, rather the reverse.

  10. What a fascinating post, thank you 🙂

    Superficially, I drive very much as I live, which is to say, with ease and a fairly ready understanding of how it all works. In fact, though, there is another thread to that, which is that I have barely driven in 10 years because my time and attention have been taken up by other things. It’s one of the many skills I have that I don’t use.

    Furthermore, I spend a lot of time stressing when I drive, because so many other road users are thoughtless, dangerous morons. While I sometimes do this in life, too, it bothers me considerably less (generally, morons aren’t too likely to kill you, whereas on the road, it’s a different story).

    I guess that in life, I’m an optimist – but when I drive, I’m a terrible misanthrope, because it feels as though there’s more at stake. Which is crazy, in a way, although actually that does tie in quite well with my upcoming thoughts on fear and control and so on.

  11. Oh, and I love to navigate – the more ‘seat of the pants’ the better. In the car and in life.

  12. Kate Says:

    I love to drive long distances by myself. Once I am outside the range of radio stations I usually listen to, I listen to music or stored podcasts or whatever. I generally don’t talk on the phone.

    I like not even sharing the sense of radio-listening-community. I love having to pay attention to doing what I am doing *right now.*

    Sometimes, a six hour drive will be the only time in a month when it’s guaranteed I won’t speak a word out loud while I am awake. Driving around the Crow reservation in MT all by myself but for a large white dog was heaven.

    I really, really, love driving by myself.

    Sadly, the waste of fuel and cost of gas and environmental impacts also means I spend about 35% of my drive feeling guilty about something I can’t really change in the short term- getting from Blmt. to Chicago without your own wheels is a 16 hour, rather than 4, project.

    According to one of them Jungian personality test things I took a while ago, I am 1) so extroverted as to be nearly off the scale, although this may have changed recently and 2) one of those extroverts that absolutely needs to have a lot of down time alone to regroup, refocus, and recenter. And also I supposedly freak out over things I can’t do much about.


  13. Francesca Says:

    *wants large white dog*

    I’m intrigued by the extraversion thing. Say more?

  14. Ros Says:

    For a variety of reasons including (but not limited to) fear of dying, fear of killing, lack of hand-eye co-ordination, poor ability to judge speeds and distances, lack of money, opportunity and necessity, it took me over 10 years to learn to drive. I can’t think of anything else in my life that has been equivalent to this process. This is probably because driving is the only thing I’ve tried to learn that I am not naturally good at. There are plenty of things I am not naturally good at, but all the others are things that I can live quite happily without ever doing them.

    The most significant moment for me was the first time I drove on my own, without an instructor. Suddenly I realised I could do this. I could decide when to change gear, and it might not be the perfect moment but it would be good enough. I think this is a little bit like my attitude to the rest of my life – I don’t like having an audience, and I really don’t like having someone watching me in judgment. I found being a trainee teacher much harder than being a newly qualified teacher, simply because of the mentor in the room taking notes on my performance.

    Instead of an instructor, I do a lot of talking to myself and my car when I’m driving. I’ve just bought a new (second hand) car and we’re still getting used to each other, but I think we’re going to get on okay.

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