Tending the Temple

Changing Course

I missed my exit today.

I was running a few minutes behind schedule this afternoon, trying to make it to Mechanicsville from the West End before the bus dropped the kids off at precisely 2:39 pm. I had about 24 minutes. But I was on auto-pilot, and instead of getting on I-64 East from Staples Mill Road, I drove straight past the exit in the direction of my parents’ house like I’ve done so many times before.

I realized my mistake only seconds too late. I couldn’t turn around and go back, and I couldn’t get in the far left turn lane to make a U-turn because it is blocked with a concrete median strip. I had to keep going in the direction I was headed, knowing full well it was not the direction I needed to be heading if I wanted to make it home before the bus got there.

To make matters worse, there were “no U-turn” signs at the next several intersections. I had to go about a mile in the wrong direction before I could turn around, retrace my steps, and get on the correct exit that would take me out onto the highway.

Let me tell you what I did not do.

I did not beat myself up for missing the exit. It was a simple mistake, made in part because this is the route I had taken several times over the past few days. And on those days, it was the right direction. It doesn’t take the mind very long to form a habit.

I did not curse or panic when I got to that second “no U-turn” sign. I did sigh. But I knew that eventually, there would be a break in the road and the traffic and I’d get back on course. And even if it made me late, I had a back-up plan. I had my neighbor’s phone number, and I could call her and ask her to keep an eye out for the kids.

I didn’t speed. The 30 seconds I might save would have done me no good if I’d gotten pulled over by a cop who would guarantee my tardiness to the bus stop.

Let me tell you what I did do.

I drove until I could make a U-turn, carefully waited until there was a break in the traffic, began backtracking down Staples Mill Road, got on the correct exit, and miraculously made it home with about one minute to spare.

I thanked God for the mistake I’d made, because it showed me that I’m capable of treating myself gently when I make a mistake or get off-course. I was grateful for this minor chance to practice self-forgiveness and self-correction without guilt, shame, or trying to force myself to change direction when it was clearly unsafe to do so.

I also laughed at myself and my crazy ability to see my simple, everyday goof-up as a profound spiritual analogy.

Less than a week ago, I wrote a pretty scathing reflection about my struggle to let go of old patterns and behaviors. In the words of one of my readers, “That was a lot of self-spanking.” If only he’d seen the first draft, when I was using the proverbial belt on myself!

Sometimes I find myself headed on a familiar road headed to a familiar destination, because at one time that was the right road, and the right destination, and the only thing that makes the journey the “wrong” one today is that now I have a slightly different destination and that road is not the most direct route. It will take me there, eventually. As in Robert Frost’s poem about the two paths diverging in a wood, “way leads on to way.” My human instinct is to immediately correct my course, but that’s not always possible – sometimes changing course is illegal, puts others in harm’s way, or even puts me in danger. Sometimes I just have to accept that I have to keep traveling in the “wrong” direction until I get a sign that says it’s safe to make a U-turn. Maybe that distance is only a few hundred feet, or maybe it is several miles, but that leg of the journey is my chance to get clear on where I want to go and how I want to get there. I could speed, I could curse, I could beat myself up, but none of those things gets me any closer to my destination.

Of all the scenarios in my life on which I could overlay this analogy, the one that stands out the most to me is my failed marriage. There were lots of “exits” I missed, even before we said “I do.” Once I’d finally become aware and then  accepted that I was headed in the wrong direction, immediately changing course wasn’t possible or safe. There were “no U-turn” signs all over that thoroughfare, even though there were plenty of breaks in the median and surely I could have made a left turn without getting caught. Instead, I waited for a sign that said it was safe to turn around, and instead of mourning all the backtracking I had to do, I was grateful to be headed back to the intersection that would take me in a new direction and hopefully to my intended destination.

The funny thing about roads is that there really is no wrong road or wrong direction. No matter where I am on the journey, the road ahead of me will eventually lead to another road, and then another road, and then another road, and eventually, the intended destination. Some routes will take me less time. Some will take me through more beautiful scenery. Some might take me through a dangerous part of town, and sometimes it might be better for me to just make a U-turn and retrace my steps.

I believe I could have stayed married and I would have eventually gotten to whatever destination God intends for me. I’m sure there would have been some really great pit-stops along that journey, too. But the road was also taking me to a place I really didn’t want to go through, no matter what kind of vistas might have been waiting on the other side. Driving with my eyes closed certainly wasn’t protecting me, either. I chose to turn around.

I have a choice to be awake at the wheel. Better still, I have a choice to let God take the wheel so I can just sit in the passenger seat and enjoy the view from the window. It sure beats looking in that rear-view mirror.


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