I can count on my fingers the number of times I have driven a car in the calendar year of 2017. This is not a remarkable statistic for me; I’ve always been a reluctant driver, looking for ways to avoid being behind the wheel. As a 16 year old, my parents had to demand I pursue a license—I had zero intrinsic motivation to avail myself of the responsibility of maneuvering a giant hunk of metal at high speeds. And those feelings haven’t dissipated in the last 16 years. I am not on the whole a fearful person. I will happily spend a month out in the wilderness or travel to rustic places solo. Scary neighborhoods don’t generally scare me. Nor does public speaking. Or being emotionally vulnerable. But if you ask me to merge or make a left turn, I start to sweat.
I’ve never been in a wreck. I’ve never even had a fender bender or a speeding ticket (if I ever get it a ticket it will be from going too slow). I’ve just lived a life primarily in residential schools where daily driving was never a necessity, and now I live in a city where a car would be a liability, and so I’ve never become immune to reality that driving is fundamentally dangerous. Far more so than climbing a mountain or being lonely in a new country.
There are however occasions, when it is worth it to me to get behind the wheel. The pursuit of quality time with friends in hard to reach places is generally the only thing that compels me in this direction. So this New Year’s Eve, in my compact rental car, I set off to Asheville, NC to ring in the New Year with some of the people I love best. The weather was slated to be clear and cold, but when I was about twenty miles from my destination a light mist started to freeze on the windshield, and within minutes cars were sliding down the interstate on a sheet of black ice. Everything slowed to a crawl. My car started to slide at one point, and my normal driving sweat reached unprecedented levels. As I crept into town, I passed by dozens of wrecks, each involving multiple cars, trucks, and even semis. I did what many, self-purported agnostics do, when death feels imminent—I started to pray.
When I made it to my friend’s house. I turned off the car, and sat in the driver’s seat shaking. I was lucky. It was clearly not my driving prowess that saved the day—I so easily could have been among those cars scattered like spilled marbles across the interstate. Before the black ice, my thoughts during the drive were focused on my plans—the friends I would see, the events we would attend. During the black ice, my thoughts were focused on all I have that I could so easily lose. I was flooded with gratitude, sitting there in my friend’s driveway, that I was one of the lucky ones.
To my chagrin, just a few hours later when the event we were supposed to attend was canceled due to weather, I found annoyance creeping up. My very important plans were being thwarted. The irony wasn’t lost on me; the reality that my flood of gratitude dwindled so quickly is troubling. We grasp the preciousness of life when we imagine we are on the cusp of losing it or when we are in the company of a loved one who is dying. But day-in-day-out that preciousness is cast to the back burner; the plans we’ve made feel like our birthright. It is pomposity on the grandest scale.
My friend and I, along with her two other friends who were taking refuge at her house, unable to get to their respective homes for the evening, rang in 2018 together. In the alternate universe of our minds we were going to ring in the New Year surrounded by hundreds of people singing Kirtan. But in the real world, we rang it in a far quieter way: sitting in a small circle on the floor of her bedroom talking about what 2017 had held, and what we hoped for in 2018.
I love believing that I am in control, but that, along with the myth of invincibility is just a story. Each year is full of lessons, and I’m grateful for the final lessons of 2017: that gratitude is a choice you have to consciously make (most of the time), that control is largely an illusion, and perhaps most importantly… that good friends are genuinely worth the drive.