Stick shift – life lessons at 40

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I began taking driving lessons here in the Netherlands last fall. I have an American license, which expired. When the renewal notice came nine years ago, I was pregnant with my first child, and my mother had just passed away. The renewal notice did not seem important.

Now that I am a parent of four who bikes next to her children through rain, sleet, and snow, I sometimes miss my driving privileges.

My husband, though, bought us a car with a stick shift. Even with a license, I don’t know how to drive it.

My Dutch driving instructor thought it would be easy to teach me, because I had already driven in the United States. Like everyone else who drives a stick shift, she said, “Oh, dat heb je zo onder de knie.” In English, that means, “You’ll have that down in no time.”

Well, I have news for you: learning to drive a stick shift has been everything but easy. When drivers ask how my lessons are coming along, I have a list of reasons why it has been so hard. Here are the four that extract the most sympathy:

  1. I’m a forty-year-old female. (According to my driving instructor, we are statistically proven to be challenging driving students.)
  2. The roads here are so narrow. (There’s just a lot more room to drive in the United States.)
  3. Dutch drivers are aggressive. (American drivers might shoot you, but most of the time, they are accommodating.)
  4. I am learning to drive in Dutch. (Sometimes my driving instructor tells me to do something, and I yell back: “What does that mean? Does it mean this? No? Oh.”)

The real and singular reason why these lessons have been so tough, though, is personal. The real reason is my lack of self-confidence.

I moved to a foreign country; I integrated; I speak and write Dutch fluently. I am raising four kids and working as a teacher at a Dutch school. Because all these accomplishments require confidence, I tend to think of myself as fantastic.

The driving lessons have really turned that view of me upside down. Learning to drive a stick shift at forty has stripped me down to the core of myself, with all its weaknesses. I am starting from scratch, beginning anew. On Dutch roads, with their road signs, roundabouts, and aggressive drivers, I am a mess.

This glaring lack of self-confidence is never more obvious than at that moment when the light turns from red to green. When I have to get the car going without letting the motor stall, I get nervous.

Why?

Pressure. The traffic light is bad enough, but I am really stressed out because of the cars behind me.

This stress is legitimate, because those drivers announce their presence. I cannot count how many times the driver behind me has honked.

Yes. There is a big “L” on the top of the car, indicating my “learner” status, and these people honk.

This is the moment in the driving lesson when my instructor says, “Ignore them.”

There I am trying to keep my calm, trying to persuade the motor to get up and go.

Sometimes, the motor actually dies.

Then I’m struggling with the ignition and cursing under my breath, and the whole time, the driver behind me is honking.

On a bad day, my driving instructor makes certain hand gestures in the airspace between our headrests.

Still, she says to me, “Ignore them.”

Then she does the unthinkable – she turns the ignition off completely, sets the car in park, and says, “Ignore them. Start again. Keep your cool.”

 


 

I had to think of her advice when I read Galatians 1:10. The author, Paul, writes: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

When I am stressing at the green light, I am worrying, in my view, about getting the car moving again. That is what it seems like on the surface.

But I am actually worrying about the people who are waiting on me, because the light has turned green and told all of us to go.

And they can’t go until I do.

On these Dutch suburban roads, I am the rookie, learning to ignore the honking driver.

On the road of life, however, Paul, the author of the letter to Galatians, takes it a step further. He draws a conclusion about what happens when we seek the approval of our peers. If we seek to please the people around us, we cannot please Christ, he writes.

Paul repeats this message in his letter to the Romans: “Do not conform to the ways of this world.”


If we examine the worlds that we imagine – like those which we dream up in books – these worlds often reflect heroes who reject the ways of their world and listen to a higher calling.

Even without being Christian, these heroes are already doing that what Jesus calls us to do.

Take Harry Potter.

Harry Potter’s life calling is to stand out.

When he arrives in Hogsmead as a new student, shopping for his school books, his fame has preceded him. The wizarding world already knows who he is, because he is the exception to the rule.

He is the “boy who survived.”

He is the only wizard who has ever survived a killing curse. The curse bounced off his forehead and boomeranged back to Voldemort, the wizard who cast it. Harry Potter’s scar, on his forehead, is the place where the curse rebounded.  It marks him as different from the rest of his peers, because it reminds everyone of his unique survival.

In his fourth year at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry stands out again. He is also the only underage wizard who competes in the Triwizard Championship. He even wins it.

In his last year, Harry quits school early to go in search of horcruxes. Horcruxes are objects that will forever put an end to the reign of terror Voldemort holds in the wizarding world.

Even in Harry’s victory, he defies the ways of the world. He dies, but he defies death through an artefact called the “Resurrection Stone.” He comes back to life and destroys the bad guy. Thanks to Harry, the wizarding world lives happily ever after.

What is Harry’s secret? What was Ghandi’s secret? What is Malala’s secret, the young Pakistani Nobel Prize winner who advocates universal education?

All our heroes answer a higher calling. Their calling is beyond that of the world. If their mission in life were to please people, they would not be the heroes we have declared them to be. Heroes stand out because they stand apart from the rest of us in their commitments to social justice, education, the environment, or whatever it is that they have been called to do.

The musician, Paul Simon, spoke of his calling in a recent interview with American National Public Radio. Songwriting is his gift. This became clear to him when he was thirteen and decided that songwriting was his life’s singular mission. Today, at sixty years old, he says, “This 13-year old is still telling me what to do.”

When God calls us away from the ways of the world, he calls us to a purpose that sets us apart. He uses a voice that does not resemble the voices of our peers, the honking of the car at the stoplight, or the static of the world.

It is the still, small voice the prophet Elijah heard after the wind, the earthquake, and the fire.

Paul Simon still hears it. Harry Potter first heard it when he was eleven. Malala is young enough to be some of our daughters, and she is still listening. In following that voice which has called her apart, she, too, is following the way that Christ has called us to follow.


At my last driving lesson, I had a breakthrough. I am getting better at gear shifting. I am able now to shift smoothly at stoplights, roundabouts, and turns. I am even able to shift and chat with my instructor about clothes, shoes, and kids.

Because the shifting has gotten easier, I am thinking less about the clutch and more about oncoming traffic. My instructor said so.

She told me that I’m finally watching the road the way I am supposed to be watching it – without her having to tell me first.

“Yeah. I’m not looking in my rear view mirror or checking the bike path anymore because I’m worried you’re going to yell at me! I’m doing it for me now. Not for you, and not even for the guy honking behind me. I’m doing it simply to make sure the road is clear for me to go.”

In my driving lessons, I have stopped trying to please people. I have stopped trying to please the line of cars waiting behind me, and I have stopped even trying to please my instructor.

I am driving the way I have been called to drive – by driving for me, not for others.

This has made me a better driver. It took half a year, but it finally happened.

On the road of life, we can do the same.

We can forget the guy honking behind us.

We can ignore the static of our peers.

We can listen to the still, small voice within.

We can focus on the road ahead that God has called us to take.

We can follow it.

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