Girl wearing Choose Empathy Hillsong jumper

Choose Empathy: Lessons from Learning to Drive Manual

Learning to drive is one of the most exciting, not to mention terrifying, things when you’re a teenager. The feeling of royalty as other’s on the road have to be more patient and empathetic because you’re a learner driver. The picture you share on Facebook once you pass the test, holding the ‘L’ plates above your forehead like a ‘loser’ (…or was that one just me?!)

Learner Driver Test

(It was cool at the time, I promise).

The adrenalin is well and truly pumping as you get into the driver’s seat for the first time. (Unless you grew up on acreage, or knew people who did – then we all know it’s not the first time…)

For the first six months, I drove my Mum’s big 7-seater Holden Captiva. An automatic car with seat warmers (my personal favourite). Once I got the hang of it and became much more confident in my driving abilities, my parent’s decided it was time to purchase a small, manual (stick shift) car for my sister and I to learn on.

Goodbye all kind of confidence I had managed to muster up in the last few months, and hello months of frustration,  stalling, hill starts, stalling, bunny hops, stalling and tantrums. (Did I mention stalling?)

The struggle was real, and the tears were a regular occurrence. I hated failing and I just couldn’t seem to get it. I had next to no patience, and that didn’t help whichever parent who was lucky enough to be sitting in the passenger’s seat, trying to teach me.

The silly little mistakes that I kept making nudged me one step closer to giving up completely. Each hill start that I stalled on. Every time I was low key redlining because I had forgotten to put it in gear. The countless times I over-revved the car when I went to take off.

I just couldn’t do it. It was as if I was learning to drive all over again. Like the last six months of driving had been all for nothing! It took me weeks, if not months, to then muster up the courage to get back on the road, but this time driving manual.

I remember driving to school. The quickest route only had two sets of traffic lights and a couple of roundabouts. My strategy was to avoid stopping whenever I could. (In hindsight – probably not the safest strategy). I would tend to speed up every time I was approaching a set of traffic lights. I’d pray so hard that the lights wouldn’t turn red because that meant I had to stop; which meant starting again. And starting again meant a high chance of stalling.

One day, I was at the second set of the two traffic lights and so far, it had been pretty good. No stalling, minimal bunny hops and smooth transitioning between gears. But then, of course, the lights turned orange and I knew that flooring it probably wasn’t the best idea from a solid 50m away. Bummer.

Now, I swear they say you sit at traffic lights for a few minutes before it’s your turn to go. But I can assure you that on this particular day, three hours passed. For the hundredth time, Mum was telling me from the passenger seat, “stop riding the clutch, Jess” and I would justify it by saying, “I don’t want to be under-prepared.”

It didn’t matter.

I stalled it.

Three times to be exact.

Enough times that somehow the lights were able to go through its entire timed cycle and return back to being red (much to the dismay of the long line of cars that had suddenly appeared behind me). I could hear a handful of cars honking in the distance, while a few changed lanes and sped past.

But one thing that stood out was the car behind me. I remember looking in my rear vision mirror, as the beads of sweat were quickly forming on every inch of my body, and seeing a woman sitting there. No retaliation or frustration, no anger or impatience. Just sitting and waiting. Almost a sense of “it’s okay, just try again”.

Fast forward six years and I have my full license and that small, manual car is my main mode of transport. I still stall occasionally. Smooth gear transitions aren’t a guarantee and I often over-rev on hill starts. But the biggest difference: it was ‘acceptable’ when I had my L plates on. As soon as the signs came off – nope, not anymore.

People tend to be more tolerant and patient with you when there’s a sign in their face telling them why they should be. When there’s a reason to choose empathy, most of the time, we don’t have an issue with it.

That lady in the car behind me saw the L plates and understood straight away that I was only learning to drive. She chose empathy and patience, while the cars at the back of the queue had no idea that I was learning manual and stalling the car.

So how come we need to justify our feelings of empathy? How come there needs to be a reason to feel that way first, then choosing empathy follows?

Imagine if everyone you [walked past/saw at work/drove past/came in contact with] held a sign describing what they were dealing with currently.

“Battling cancer.”
“Going through a divorce.”
“Son in a coma.”
“Lost my job.”
“Fighting depression.”

We would be playing in a completely different ballpark then. It is very likely that we would all be a bit more empathetic and patient with others. But that shouldn’t be the case. Choosing empathy should be a genuine reaction, rather than the byproduct of successful justification.

I encourage you to practice patience with others. Not just those that you know, but more importantly – strangers. Those people who you have no idea what they are going through. That one is hard to do.

Don’t wait until you know what someone is going through to start choosing empathy. I’d like to think that the woman in the car behind me would have chosen patience and empathy if the L plates weren’t put on my car. But the reality is that she probably would’ve acted like everyone else did.

If everyone held signs and we could visually read what other people were going through, I can assure you that the world would be a nicer place. But I want to challenge us all to treat others with kindness and patience, whether we believe they deserve it or not.

Maybe, just maybe, instead of needing to read signs to know someone’s story first, we could all choose empathy anyway.

Keep smiling. x

2 thoughts on “Choose Empathy: Lessons from Learning to Drive Manual

  1. Maitlyn Harkey says:

    This is fantastic. Honestly one of the best articles/posts I’ve read all year. Thank you for such thoughtful, convicting, and kind words.

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