They say you learn something new everyday.
Well, this lesson is taking me considerably longer than 24 hours.
My wife and I are currently in the mountains of North Carolina and we are borrowing a car from a friend. The car happens to have a manual transmission (I laugh that some people still refer to this as ‘standard’). My wife grew up driving a stick-shift, but I have never had the opportunity, or the need. Now in my early thirties, my time has come to learn this lesson.
Overall, the skill is developing; I haven’t left any transmission parts on the asphalt and my number of stallings is permissible. And I’ve been learning more than just how to change gears on an automobile.
First gear is very interesting to me. In many ways, it seems to be the most significant gear. It’s perhaps the hardest one to use (though going in reverse up a hill is pretty challenging as well), and yet it governs the smallest range of speed. You have to use it, unless you never bring your car to a full stop (I’ve certainly had more rolling stops than ever before), and it tends to present the most opportunity for stalling out and jerking, shuddering gear changes.
Once you get into second gear, it’s all quite easy. Changing to third or fourth gear (I’m in a small town, so I haven’t gotten anywhere near 5th gear yet) is simple and smooth, almost mindless even at my driver-in-training level of ability. Speeding up and slowing down can be done in much the same way as driving an automatic, and if you can time your turns right, you don’t even need to downshift there either.
But first gear plagues me. Getting that start whether from being parked or sitting at a red light or a stop sign (yes, I do occasionally come to a complete stop) is always a bit nerve-racking. I expect it to be difficult, I rarely make a smooth beginning, and it’s nearly enough to dissuade me from driving at all. It’s certainly enough to motivate me to do whatever I can to stay in 2nd gear or above if at all possible.
It catches my attention that many of life’s endeavors are geared similarly to this ‘standard’ transmission car. The beginning season is difficult, full of false starts and frustration, even amidst the eagerness to just get going and be on our way. It is in the initial season of a project that we often encounter steep uphill battles, challenges to our internal drive, and questions about whether it’s all worth while and whether there might not be an easier way. We may shudder and jerk (or become jerks ourselves) and even stall out numerous times, requiring instruction from others in order to get going once again.
But after ramping up speed a little, we can shift gears, change our efforts from just getting through that first 10 miles an hour and start finding our niche, turning our mindfulness from bare survival and onto the grand dreams and destinations that await us.
As much as we might prefer, however, we cannot skip over that first gear, that first phase of launching ourselves in. We have to work ourselves through the rigors of balancing gas and clutch, of negotiating the unappealing circumstances of coming to a halt at the top of a hill with a car stopped so close behind you that you cannot see his headlights.
Even once we get going, we do not know when we might have to stop or pause unexpectedly. A construction zone or a scampering squirrel might require a return to first gear even though we thought that phase was over and done with.
It is hard to get going from a dead stop, but it is made easier when there’s a companion along. I have yet to go driving without my wife in the passenger seat, coaching me along in the unforeseen situations, trying to provide calm as I panic a bit with negotiating 3 peddles, two levers (gear shift and emergency brake), and not violating the normal rules of traffic (stop signs and speed limits). I am thankful that she is along, even thought it is not always easy for her. She screamed a bit when I spun out after applying a bit too much gas and leapt off the line at my hilltop stop sign. But she endured, and as a result, so did I.
First gear. Necessary, though difficult. Unappealing, yet most in need of mastery. The test of life is not whether we can quickly get to 65 mph on an open highway and then just sail along thoughtlessly. But rather, with integrity and excellence, can we make it through the jerks and the starts, the stop-and-go of crowded streets and hazards, all the while keeping our eyes on our hoped for destination.