I’m in the process of learning how to drive a stick shift. Somebody from the church is allowing me to borrow their car for the remainder of the summer. The only catch is that its a manual transmission, something I am pretty unfamiliar with. It is a frustrating process. I have stalled out more times than I can remember and more than once have thought that I might be better off walking everywhere than driving a stick shift. Thankfully I have a gracious and patient teacher in my friend Nate Edmondson. I am extremely thankful for his guidance and support. I have also been blessed by numerous friends and strangers who have helped me out along the way. One of those strangers I never even talked to and only saw him for a brief moment. But in the midst of a socially and politically divided culture, I think my interaction with that man is worth sharing.
It was my first lesson with Nate. I was having some success getting started in a parking lot and was taking a few laps in a small neighborhood. I was at about a 25% success rate with starts, stalling out a couple of times between each one. This isn’t so bad in an empty parking lot. But on an actual street with actual people driving the same road, it can feel a little stressful. I cringed every time a car came up behind me at a stop sign, and often would sheepishly hit my emergency lights and wave them through. I got some dirty looks, some honks, some frustrated arm and hand movements. But one particular interaction stood out.
He was an older guy in an older looking pick up truck. I had just come to a complete stop and was mentally preparing myself to put the car in gear. I was nervous. He was in a hurry. He honked as I felt the all too familiar sensation of the car lurching forward momentarily before coming to a harsh stop. I hit the blinkers. He hit the horn. I waved him around. As he passed me and prepared to stare into my soul and give me the wrath I deserved for being such an awful driver, he looked over and could tell what was happening. I’m not sure whether he could tell just from the expression on my face, if he recognized the lurching/stopping motion, or if he saw the gear shifter between me and Nate, but somehow he figured out that I was learning to drive a stick shift. His countenance was immediately changed. He transitioned from a grimace to a grin and made a hand motion resembling the shifting of an invisible gear in the air, followed by a thumbs up and a friendly wave.
It was a brief interaction. But to me, it was significant. Something especially profound had just occurred. He went through a thought process that is only possible in thoughtful human beings. Let’s break this down:
1) He was frustrated. I had inconvenienced him by not moving forward at a stop sign when it was my turn to go.
2) He expressed his frustration by honking.
3) He learned more about the situation. He saw that I wasn’t intending to hold him up and I wasn’t just some guy staring down at his phone at a stop sign. He saw that I was a guy doing the best he could to learn a challenging new skill.
4) He probably remembered when he first learned to drive a stick shift. He resonated with the frustration that I might have been feeling and felt some empathy towards me.
5) The new information he had learned, combined with his recollection of his own past experiences, led to a change of heart. His immediate frustration then transitioned to compassion.
6) He left the situation with a new perspective.
He could have ignored any of the facts and continued on in his anger and frustration. He could have turned around and sped off, feeling animosity towards that idiot in the red Honda Civic. But instead, a moment of frustration became a moment of encouragement, one human to another.
The ability to do this is one thing that separates us from all other forms of life. We can learn, empathize, understand, grow. We can have our natural reactions be reversed by a more thorough understanding of a situation. We can appreciate the struggles that people we don’t even know are going through. We can have our minds changed. We can find commonalities with random strangers and grow in our love for them because of it.
And yet, so often, we don’t. When I look at the current social and political arena, I don’t see a whole lot of people like this guy in the pick up trick. We act like people who would have angrily sped off in the opposite direction. People who might have flipped me the bird without ever making eye contact. People who’s horn was blaring too loud for them to hear my apologies. We make quick judgments about groups and individuals that we know nothing about and develop negative feelings towards them based on little to no understanding of who they are. But that’s not the kind of people that we were created to be.
We are made to be people who seek to understand. People who look for ways to empathize with groups and individuals that they are unfamiliar with. We are meant to be people who can learn more about a situation and realize that its not as adverse to our own ideas as we thought it was. We are meant to love, to encourage, to support.
Maybe its a social movement that you have written off without really investigating. Maybe its a coworker that rubs you the wrong way even though you have never actually had a conversation with them. Maybe its the stupid little car in front of you that is holding up traffic at a stop sign. Whatever it is, my challenge is that you would seek to understand. That you would allow your perspective to be changed as you learn more about the people, events, and ideas around you. That you would be the type of people we were created to be.
P.S. If you are reading this and think, “Gee, I really wish that (insert group or individual you are frustrated with here) would read this,” then you are exactly who needs to read this.