Learning to Think, Thinking to Learn

In The Car

I hired a car for a few days over Christmas. It was the first time I’d driven in a year, and on the quiet holiday roads it was a truly pleasurable experience.

At some point I parked and noticed the car showed me a display of my “eco-credentials”. I wish I’d taken a picture at the time, because it gave me a score in the 90s, and my acceleration and anticipation marks were perfect. Sadly, later in the evening I took a long drive down a dark country lane which took the edge off my scores, so when the inspiration for this post came to me and I took the picture below, it was not as impressive as I’d hoped.

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Over the years I’ve learned to drive steadily, because doing otherwise serves no purpose. So I’m not surprised that my statistics remained quite good in the main. The interesting part of the display was my gear change score, which started relatively poor and didn’t improve.

Like many modern vehicles my car gave me a visual clue – a flashing gear stick icon – on the dashboard when it ‘wanted’ me to change gear. I didn’t notice very often because my eyes tended to stay on the road. But when it did attract my attention I became aware of what was going on, and what was hurting my gear score when I was convinced that I was driving smoothly.

When I learned to drive, about twenty years ago, my instructor taught me to listen to the engine, and said that the car would tell me when to change gear, either up or down, by the sound it was making. I found that the changing up spot would come between 2000 and 2500 rpm – usually towards the lower end of that range. This satisfied my instructor, and also got me through my test and my first nineteen years of driving.

But this Christmas, I found that my car was flashing its icon at me between 1500 and 2000 rpm, well before it sounded right for me to change up, and it would also tell me to change down when my senses and experience were telling me the engine was fine where it was. I tried to adjust, but it wasn’t easy unless I let my eyes linger on the dashboard much longer than felt safe. I expect it would take a few weeks for me to adapt my driving style to this new paradigm.

This got me thinking, asking myself why I was getting this simple task so wrong after all these years. Advanced motorists among you may have an immediate answer, but I was very interested in the range of possible explanations that occurred to me. They were:

  • Did I misunderstand the original instructions, but ‘got away with it’ when I was learning and being tested?
  • Am I remembering my instructions wrongly? My memory isn’t my greatest asset.
  • Was the instructor wrong?
  • Have cars changed over the last twenty years? Undoubtedly they have, so have improvements to engine design and efficiency changed the way they should be driven? And do different ‘rules’ apply to different cars?
  • Am I really just driving by ‘muscle memory’, through habits formed over years of experience, for better or worse?

Speculation about my driving technique is one thing, but as I thought about those questions it brought to mind another kind of instruction I’ve been receiving over the last ten years, which is of course Christian instruction – from reading the Bible or other books and articles, from Sunday messages, from small group discussions, and so on.

In the last decade I’ve moved home a few times, and as a result moved church as well. I’ve been a member of three different churches over those years. At each one there have been occasions where I was taught things that I was uncomfortable with at the time, or which I have come to doubt since.

Reflecting on this, I realise that the questions I asked myself about my driving are also pertinent to these teachings:

  • Did I misunderstand what I was being taught?
  • Have I misremembered what I was taught?
  • Was the teaching wrong? Even the best of us is human, and fallible. I’d love to believe that everything spoken from the pulpit is right and good, but I’m sure that mistakes are made. This reminds me of an occasion when I was in primary school. I don’t know how old I was, but I was very young! A teacher asked us what “USSR” stood for, and being rather too well-informed for my years I stuck my hand up and said “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” which the teacher promptly shot down and corrected me, informing the class that it actually stood for “United States of Soviet Russia.”
  • God doesn’t change, but the world does, and people do. I do. Does this affect what I was taught, or how it should be applied?
  • Has my experience of life, faith and God changed my perspective, beliefs and practices – or habits – for better or worse?

I think it is vital for all of us to consider these questions whenever something troubles us, either in our own understanding, or in what we learn from others, because not one of us has all the answers. We are all “looking through a glass, darkly,” we should all be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” which is an ongoing, life-long process. There are some tenets of faith that are fundamentally true, while we can sometimes hold on to others that merely make us fundamentalists in the worst sense.

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