Driving home from work one dark, New England mid-winter's evening—alone with my thoughts and taking the road less traveled to sit with them a while longer—I watched the pavement outside my windshield narrow and transform into a dirt path. Still passable, I slowed and moved ahead. And kept moving until my right-front Goodyear broke through an icy pothole.
One thread running through every vehicle I've ever owned is a standard transmission. So, channeling high school driver's ed, I began mechanically rocking my car forward and backward by shifting from first gear into reverse and then from reverse into first gear. Repeatedly.
Then repeatedly with more ego, anxiousness, and throttle.
Whatever thoughts were on my mind driving home were out the window, replaced, at 11:00 pm, by the frustration of my inability to lift myself out of a rut. On failure's heels was embarrassment: specifically, knocking on the door of the only house around and asking robed homeowners if I could use their phone to summon a tow truck (the days of cellphone ubiquity were over the horizon).
Back in my car, I sat humbled and resigned. My battle lost, I waited for a bleary-eyed man to rumble up and hitch a hook to my bumper to complete my terms of surrender to the rut. After a few quiet minutes passed, a thought crossed my mind: why not try to move forward?
I pressed the clutch to the floor, turned the key, flicked the gear knob into first and, with the gentleness of a midnight snacker tiptoeing through the kitchen, gradually released the clutch from the floorboard with one foot while brushing the gas pedal with the other. Voilà. Just as quickly as I had gotten stuck I was unstuck.
Fast forward five minutes and I found myself apologizing profusely to the tow-truck driver, offering to pay him for his trouble. Accepting the former and graciously rejecting the latter, he gave me a wave of his gloved hand and I motored home.
I think back to my time on that dirt road now and then. Maybe what keeps us in ruts is holding on too tightly to where we want to be, and when; maybe that mindset acts like a shovel. What if letting go of our desire to control outcomes gives us the leverage we need to be free?