This is about the time I tried to climb a tree.
In a car.
I did not succeed.
I walked away (literally). Neither the car nor the tree were very appreciative.
Fayette, Alabama, early 90s. I was minding my own business when…
Oh. OK. Starting over…
Fayette, Alabama, early 90s. I wasn’t paying attention.
(How was that?)
I was making the little run from my house to the office – something I did every day at least twice a day. In between one neighborhood and another was a stretch of about half a mile that was sort of woodsy and country.
And there was this little ditch.
I’d never noticed it before. But you can be sure I never ignored it again after this day. The ditch was just wide enough for my right tires to slip right in. And slip they did.
What I’m describing to you happened at about 30 miles per hour in a matter of seconds. The car slipped off the road and the wheels slipped into a ditch as if I were in an oversized slot car game.
I should probably point out here that while my car, like most cars, had two foot pedals, I always figured the big one was mostly for decoration. So like most oops-the-road situations, I didn’t hit the brakes – I just tried to wheel my way back out of the ditch.
That wasn’t happening.
What was happening was the sudden appearance of this massive oak tree. Y’all, it just jumped out of nowhere. It saw me coming and the acorns went to work. Next thing I knew the ditch forced me to introduce myself to the tree. I swear I had nothing to do with it.
That what I explained to the insurance company anyway. They sorta looked at me like I left my brain back at the oak tree.
Anyway, rewinding… still moving along about 25 mph, I kept trying to wheel my way out of my slot-shaped ditch. The thought didn’t occur to me – not once – to hit the brakes. So yes, I wound up ramming my car into the tree and actually fender-climbing it a bit.
Nothing hurt but my pride. Well, and the car, which I never drove again.
This real-life experience has become a metaphor for me for what can often happen in life. I’ve seen it happen to people’s careers. Their influence. Their personal lives at whatever level. Their relationships. Somewhere, somehow, without wanting to, they hit the ditch. And they’re stuck, and powerless, and a bit wrecked or hurt, and they’re halfway up a tree and without help, they ain’t going nowhere.
Yes, I’ve seen it happen to me.
Nobody sets out to wreck their lives or loves by hitting the ditch. But in a state of mass humanization, it can happen – easily – to the best of us. With a bit of a rewind and post-car-mortem, maybe there are a few things we can learn about that experience.
There All Along
Let’s start with the obvious. Know why I hit the ditch? Because a ditch was there in the first place. It didn’t suddenly appear that lovely summer morning. It had been there all along – I just had ignored it.
Left to my own devices, I live in a mental world where ditches don’t exist. I’m always looking forward, thinking about where the next opportunity is going to take me, planning for the next good thing to happen. It doesn’t naturally occur to me what danger may lurk around the next curve in the road.
Most days, to be honest, I prefer that. Life is too short to waste it waiting for the next calamity or catastrophe. But when we become such strangers to dangers that we live in denial they exist, sooner or later, those dangers are likely to appear.
Nobody stands in their wedding ceremony calculating how likely it is their partner will become unhappy. Very few people hold an otherwise-healthy newborn and start rattling off all the possible ways that kid can rake their soul with pain. Nobody signs a work contract planning to be fired. But ditches do happen, and if you’re at least aware of the potential for that, maybe you can avoid them.
Asleep at the Wheel
I got in the ditch because I was careless. I was looking off or reaching for something. (Texting wasn’t an option back then.) My body was in one place, and my brain was off in another.
There is a reason Peter warns the people he cares about, “Be sober, be vigilent…” (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus had warned Peter, “Watch and pray…” (Matthew 26:41).
Or like my Daddy always said, “Make sure your brain is in motion before your mouth is in gear…”
There’s something to be said for simply being awake and aware.
I’m learning that again with my one-word focus for this year, which happens to be “One.” Do the one thing. Be in one place. Focus on one priority. Be present with the people who are present.
How many people have looked at crashed-out lives, careers, relationships or influence and lamented, “Oh, if only I had paid attention!” Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but foresight doesn’t have to be blind.
“I Brake for Trees…”
I found the tree because, once I did hit the ditch, I didn’t hit the brakes. Seems sorta stupid looking back on it. I like to blame it on Driver’s Ed.
The ditch was an abrupt first sign of danger. But I didn’t interpret it that way. My knee-jerk reaction was, “I can handle this.” I handled it, all right.
Hey, coach. I know the adrenaline flows during the two-minute drill, and it’s exciting and all that. But every once in a while, you probably need to call time out.
I know that life is busy and time is short and you have places to be and things to do and the clock’s ticking and money’s on the table and people are depending on you and sleep is for losers and
You’re headed for a collision.
Take the vacation. Do damage control on the marriage. Accept the painful feedback from the boss or the customer. Listen to the distant silence of your kids.
Either you hit the brakes on your life direction or a conveniently-placed tree will. Only your “tree” may come in the form of a heart attack, or a broken relationship, or a business failure, or a job loss.
Only One Way Out
Care to guess how I finally got out of the ditch and off the tree?
Only with help. It was the only way. Somebody with his tires still on the road, and some special equipment and training, had to come pull the car to a safe place.
(Actually I think they did it more for the sake of the tree than the car… it was a goner.)
The same is true when you hit the metaphorical ditch. You need help getting out. As my friends in Recovery say, “My best thinking got me here.” You need somebody else’s best thinking, and praying, and wisdom, and strength to get you out.
All that starts with God, of course. It starts with you humbling yourself enough to say, “God, I can’t do this by myself. I’ve made the mess, but I can’t fix it.”
It may involve mourning some losses. As I mentioned, I never drove that car again. Too bad, too, because that car was very special to me. In the natural world of vehicles, I had to admit that the loss was total and move forward at a time when I really couldn’t afford to.
The same may be true of your ditch experiences. While I’m a huge believer in comebacks – I’ve experienced too many not to be – sometimes the comeback doesn’t happen. But with help from God and trusted others, you can experience life beyond the ditch. The ditch, while painful and embarrassing, doesn’t have to define your life.
A Final Word to Those Still on the Road
You may be reading this from a place of fear, sadness or anger because you’re not the one in the ditch – it’s your husband or teenager or your out-of-control stupid boss. And they’re hell-bent on taking everybody else around them into the ditch with them.
Do not assume they’ll figure it out before it’s too late. If you need to intervene, for God’s sake and theirs, intervene.
But if you’re living in the wake of someone else’s crash, may I remind you that Jesus is still the Friend of a wounded heart? You can trust Him with your pain… and with your future. The ditch, while it can be devastating, doesn’t have to be your destiny.
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