Learning to Drive

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, May 19, 2019

We celebrated my Dad’s 100th birthday two weeks ago.  He wasn’t with us; he died in 1990.  But I made him a cake and we celebrated his good life.

He taught me a lot of things.  More things than I learned: I should have paid better attention.  One thing he taught me was how to drive.  I wanted to get my license so I did pay attention to that, and so I learned.

He was a pretty tough, demanding driving instructor.  Good enough wasn’t good enough for him, so he made sure I knew how to handle difficult situations of all kinds.  For example, this was in Rochester, New York, and he wanted to be sure I could handle icy roads.  So there was a Sunday we went down to a supermarket parking lot.  There weren’t any cars because supermarkets weren’t open on Sunday when I was a teen.  And for an hour and a half he had me get up to speed in our family sedan, slam on the brakes, and then deal with the resulting skid.  Over and over again, skid after skid.  He wanted me to be comfortable behind the wheel with the car out of control.  He wanted me to have that experience. 

We also had a little Renault that he drove to work.   It had a five speed manual transmission.  Evening after evening, after dinner, he’d take me to a dirt road on a nearby county park and make me practice with that manual gearshift. Often the road was muddy so starting up was harder.  And after I sort of got the hang of it, he had me start the car in second gear.  When I got the hang of that, he’d find a little hill and have me start the car moving in second gear on that little hill.  It all felt a little severe at the time, but I’m glad he made sure I learned to drive well. 

Learning to drive has been on my mind because now Ellen and I are teaching Robbie to drive.  He’s had his learner’s permit for several months, and his first times behind the wheel, at least legally, came in his driver’s education course.  But since he’s had his permit he drives every chance that comes his way. 

I just said “Ellen and I are teaching Robbie to drive.”  Now I know that isn’t quite right.  It’s rather: “we’re helping him learn to drive.”  There’s a big difference. 

What gets done, what gets learned, he has to do.  We’ve introduced him to a succession of challenges and he’s figured out how to handle them.  Instead of a Renault Dauphin, he’s learned to drive a stick shift in our 1987 Jetta, which has sadly just failed a basic safety check so he can’t take his driving test in that.  I’ve had him start the car up in second.  I’ve looked for muddy dirt tracks up at the Topsham Fairgrounds.  He’s dealt with starting up a stick shift on hills.    He’s handled a few skids – though no icy supermarket parking lots. 

I’m not downplaying the role of teachers when I say what we learn we have to learn ourselves.  Teachers can play a big role, but the learning is something you have to do yourself.  The learning can’t be injected with a needle or poured down your throat.  Whatever it is: learning to drive, learning geometry, learning to bake a cake – learning what’s important in life. 

Teachers can encourage, they can coach, they can challenge, they can pose tasks or problems, but they can’t do the learning for you.

As I’ve been sitting next to Robbie in the passenger seat, he’s in control and I’m not.  It’s his hands on the steering wheel; his feet on the pedals.  I make suggestions and comments. I call attention to hazards and situations.  I talk to him about other drivers; how you can’t be responsible for what they’ll do and you’d better be prepared for the worst.  I talk to him about speed limits, about conditions when even going the speed limit isn’t safe. 

I quickly realized – I already knew this, but the realization really hit me – that I can’t tell him things fast enough, even when I’m sitting right next to him.  His learning to drive has to be a matter of his having fully taken in what he needs to know to drive well.  I can’t be some voice in his head he’ll hear every time he turns on the ignition.  (“What would my Dad say about that?”) 

I can still hear my dad talking to me about driving if I really put my mind to it, but that’s not how I drive. 

Nevertheless, there are lots of occasions when I wish I could hear from my Dad.  There are lots of matters I’d love to talk over with him.  There are so many questions I never asked him, and so many others I where didn’t listen carefully the one time or two I did ask him.  Wherever I’ve gone, he’s been there before me: being a teen, falling in love, having children, working, retiring from work

All this about learning to drive and wishing I still had my Dad sitting next to me helping me learn to drive has gotten me thinking about how we learn from God – how we might learn things from God: about living the good life, about fixing the things that aren’t right in this world, about what’s worth celebrating and what’s worth mourning.  Those sorts of things.  Here I am in the driver’s seat.  Is God there next to me?  I think God is.  I think that’s something we Quakers know and maybe can teach others.

Learning life is tougher than learning to drive.  None of us ever quite learns everything we need to know.  It’s like we do need our dad, or better, our mom sitting next to us, giving us the occasional suggestion, pointing out a difficult situation ahead.  And here’s the deal, the wonderful deal.  There she is sitting beside us.  She doesn’t say much most of the time, and we don’t expect her to say much most of the time.  But she’s there sitting next to us.  She’s ready to offer advice, or simply tell us it’s all OK.  When we ask.  When we’re prepared to listen. 

Of course that’s not exactly what George Fox meant we he said “Jesus has come to teach his people himself.”  He didn’t mean Jesus would be literally sitting next to us when we’re driving.  He meant something stranger and yet more wonderful. 

He meant Jesus, or the Inward Teacher, or the Seed, or the Light was always with us, always inside us — as well as all around us.  When we need guidance, we have to be sure to ask.  We have to be ready to still ourselves and listen.  That takes some learning: how to seek, how to ask, how to still myself, how to listen.

And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 28.  What an amazing, reassuring promise. 

Today I don’t have my Dad with me in the way that I’d like.  So it’s a great comfort to me to know that I have the Inward Teacher wherever I go. 

crossposted on Durham Friends Meeting website

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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1 Response to Learning to Drive

  1. Pingback: “Learning to Drive” by Doug Bennett | Durham Friends Meeting (Quaker)

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