By David Carlson
Late winter is usually a season for potholes, but this year has produced a bumper crop of these road craters. Tires, wheel alignments and maybe even axles have been ruined by the concrete divots that seem to be everywhere from side streets to interstates. Just recently, the mayor of Indianapolis declared a pothole emergency, and we shouldn’t expect anyone from either political party to disagree with that decision.
Potholes jar us and, if we hit enough of them on a single trip, they can seem personal, as if the potholes are aiming for us. We might imagine that even a saint would let a few well-chosen epithets fly if she hit one of the big potholes in central Indiana.
Potholes are the winter version of summer’s mosquitoes — they are something we doubt has any purpose outside of annoying us. But perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps there is some wisdom that potholes can teach us.
In one of my favorite movies, David Lynch’s “The Straight Story,” Alvin Straight is driving across Iowa to see his brother who recently had a stroke. Alvin’s poor eyesight prevents him from driving a car, so he rigs a John Deere riding lawnmower to make the trip.
His unusual mode of transportation leads Alvin to interact with many people on his journey, but one encounter stands out. A driver passes Alvin in a flash, honking madly, only to hit a deer a few hundred yards down the road. Although Alvin stops to help, he can do little but listen as the driver rants about all the deer she’s hit on this same stretch of road.
During pothole season, we might be tempted to identify with this driver as she looks up to the heavens and utters that eternal lament, “why me?” But the scene is intended to offer a different lesson. The one option that the driver never seems to have considered is slowing down.
Several years ago, I wrote a column about how I’d given up my habit of driving five to 10 miles over the speed limit. I haven’t always been faithful to my pledge, but I’ve recently recommitted myself to that goal. A pleasant result during the past weeks has been that I can more easily see the potholes ahead and make a slight correction. While I’m not advocating that anyone jump from lane to lane, I can attest that a slight adjustment within my lane often allows me to avoid the potholes.
I imagine a clergy person or psychologist at this point asking, “And what is the bigger lesson we can learn from this?” Their insights would be wiser than anything I can offer, but I do recognize that slowing down is a valuable lesson in living our lives more meaningfully. We might wish with the woman in The Straight Story that on the road of life there would be no deer or potholes ahead of us, nothing to rob us of a smooth journey, but that will never be the case.
Instead of lamenting and cursing the potholes of life, we might ask if there is a better way to navigate them. Many psychologists and spiritual teachers would recommend that we consider the path of mindfulness.
As I have learned from my wife, who teaches this practice, mindfulness allows us to be more attentive to the moment, helps us slow down our racing thoughts and provides an antidote to the high levels of stress that everyone, even our young children, seem to be plagued with.
The surprise is that mindfulness isn’t hard to learn. It is a practice as simple as paying attention to one’s breath, taking a moment to pay attention when we breathe in and then breathe out. In many ways, being mindful is as easy as slowing down in our cars.
No matter how much we wish otherwise, the potholes of life will always be there. The good news is that we don’t have to hit every one of them.
David Carlson of Franklin is a college philosophy and religion professor. Send comments to email@example.com.