Wednesday, 25 November 2015

We’re All Backseat Drivers

We’ve all heard of a ‘backseat driver’. For those of us who drive it can be a testing experience to say the least. Wikipedia (unfairly belittled) drawing from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as follows: “A backseat driver is a passenger in a vehicle who is not controlling the vehicle but who excessively comments on the driver's actions and decisions in an attempt to control the vehicle.”[1] The defining characteristics of the backseat driver are his excessiveness and his attempt to control the vehicle, and thus when we speak of a backseat driver we are not referring to someone who makes a helpful suggestion here or there.

There are two main types of backseat drivers. The first is the justified backseat driver who seeks to implicitly or explicitly control the vehicle because of recklessness and objective poor driving. The second is the unjustified backseat driver who despite the reasonable or good driving skills of the driver seeks to unjustifiably take control of the vehicle in an implicit or explicit manner. The driver may not even know where he or she is going, but provided that they are a decent driver then directional advice is all that they need – not some jockey to saddle up beside them.

Let’s imagine a couple of scenarios. Imagine you’re driving in a car with a passenger in the backseat. Your destination: McDonald’s. The occasion: lunch. At first the passenger is calm and is engaged in pleasant conversation with you. However all of a sudden you get an impulse to put the petal-to-the-metal and start fishtailing down the freeway. Not only this, but you take the wrong exit towards Sizzlers instead of Maccy D’s (a great sin indeed…plus you’re not even rich). On top of that, as you turn the exit you down a six pack of Emu Bitter in 3 seconds flat.[2] At this point your passenger exclaims: “What on earth are you doing?!! You’re going to kill us!” and “Stop!! You’re going the wrong way!” After screaming for several minutes and attempting to grab the steering wheel in vain, your passenger opens the rear door and jumps out of the vehicle, recovers from concussion and starts limping towards Mc Donald’s. By this point you have stopped the car. End of scenario one.

Now in this instance we have a sure case of a justified backseat driver. If you were driving you can hardly blame the passenger for wanting to take control of the vehicle and eventually getting out of the vehicle altogether.

Now for another scenario. Imagine you’re driving in a manual car with a passenger in the backseat. You’re a professional driver and are renowned as the best in the world. Your passenger on the other hand has no idea how to drive a manual car. Your destination: The beach. The occasion: chill time. You know the way perfectly. Yet even though the passenger has never been in this suburb he starts making comments about how you’re going the wrong way. You are a little more perplexed than peeved – thinking to yourself that this guy must be wacked since he has no idea what he’s even saying. Next, your passenger starts repeatedly yelling at the top of his voice: “Where are you going?! Where are you going?!” At this point you are certain that this guy must be off his chops, and you only wish you had an eject button to get rid of him. Then all of a sudden he climbs from the backseat screaming “shotgun!” and starts punching your arms and face whilst grappling at the wheel to gain control of the car. You’re beside yourself yet are trying all you can to stay on the road. Meanwhile he manages to sit on your lap in an attempt to drive the car. But the guy doesn’t even know how to drive, or what a car really is (since he has an automatic license), and before you know it you’ve ploughed into a tree and the car is smashed. Destination beach: not today.

Now without having a degree in such matters as this we would invariably say that this is most certainly ‘a worst case scenario’ of an unjustified backseat driver. In reality I do not think most of us would be so ‘Daria-like’, so relatively calm and collected in such an instance.[3] For in truth most of us would hardly tolerate the first yell; never mind the excessive yelling, the physical assault, the explicit attempt to grapple the wheel and even the sitting on the lap. Yet what likely frustrates us most about this scenario – if it were a reality – is the absurdity of the passenger in questioning us and our competent ability, especially if we were the best driver in the world who knew exactly where they were going. It would make us even more frustrated since such a passenger doesn’t even know the way, never mind the fact that they can’t even drive (a manual).

However the humbling reality is this: we are this annoying, ignorant and unreasonable passenger, the vehicle is our life, and God is the professional driver who knows exactly what He is doing. However despite the fact that God is who He is – Perfect, Eternal, All Knowing, All Loving, Incapable of Evil, always seeking our good, and wanting to ‘take us’ to the Celestial Beach called Heaven – in our arrogance and pride we think we know better, and want to take control of our own lives, just as that wacked passenger wanted to take control of the vehicle. Yet when we take control of our lives we always end up in a place and state we don’t want to be. In a place of self-compromise, where we have abandoned our ideals, faith and moral principles. In a state of mediocrity, where we aren’t happy any more with who we are and what we’re doing. In a state of guilt and shame, where we know deep inside we have made ‘a wrong turn’ and feel as though we are lost, without knowing where we are, what we are doing, and where to go. In a state of apathy, where we don’t really care anymore, where we are indifferent and harsh to others; and where we have lost the spark we once had – that passion for life and that zeal for our faith which once burnt in our hearts as our ‘first love’. When we think we know better and take control of our lives, we steer ourselves aimlessly about without ever finding that true happiness and meaning for which deep-deep down we all crave. When we stick to the route we’ve planned for our lives we only find fleeting pleasures, superficial intimacy and inner emptiness – which we pretend doesn’t exist by keeping ourselves distracted in busyness and absorbed in noise.

We are unjustified backseat drivers and if we totally take control of our lives, pushing God aside, we will end up smashing into a metaphorical tree. We all want perfect happiness and so it is that we all yearn for heaven which can be tasted even here and now. But we don’t know the way, only God does. We don’t even know what will happen tomorrow, or next week, so how can we expect to be the masters of our life and do a good job at it? Some people complain that God has done nothing for them in their lives, but this is like blaming someone else for their poor driving when they themselves are the driver. It is only in letting God take the wheel that life becomes rich and meaningful, without the worries that plague us when we choose to drive the vehicle of our life instead. For is it not relaxing to be the passenger? To not have to worry about traffic, speeding, thinking too much? We can just relax, enjoy the view out the window, and the freedom to move about. We can even have a nap.

Maybe we have kicked God out of the vehicle of our lives and need to invite Him back in. Repentance for our sins opens the car door again. Letting go of sinful habits and making positive changes in our lives is to move out of the driver’s seat and to let God take His rightful place. To let go of control of our lives and to let God take control, is to give Him the car keys of our free will – without it, God can’t take us on that meaningful road trip of intimacy with Him that leads to heaven. To pray daily from the heart is to converse lovingly with God and is to speak positively with praises and thanksgiving for the generosity of such a marvelous driver. To spend time in silence is to put on the stereo in the vehicle of one’s life, since through this silence the divine harmonies are heard that lead to peace and joy of heart. Truly if we surrender our plans and agendas to God and let Him be the driver of our lives, then although we may have gone off track, and are in a place we regret to be in, He will steer us back to where we are supposed be and take us to where we were made to be.

Unfortunately this old lady is a lot like us
Maybe we let God drive some of the time, and we like to take control when we don’t like where we are going. But how arrogant can we really be, to actually think we know better than God the Creator of All Things? Perhaps we don’t like a certain trial we see coming, a certain desert we have to cross – but instead we take the wheel and go the easy way, the scenic way – in the complete opposite direction. Not only do we thwart our spiritual progress and hurt God – who only wants to drive us to the Promised Land – when we act in such a way, but we are shooting ourselves in the foot as it were. Since “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer 29:11). So when we take control of our lives, even if it is just in little things, or for certain days in the week, or if we only let God drive ‘when we want to’ – as some kind of control freak, then we are thwarting the travel route of God – a route which is “for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”. Hence when we thwart God’s travel route, wanting to go our own way, in our own time, at our own speed, we replace it with our travel route which we always think is the ‘right way’, ‘the best way’ and a way that is for our welfare, but it is in fact the opposite of God’s. Thus our travel route leads to our detriment, not to our good, and makes dull our future and dashes our hopes. We think the opposite in our blind arrogance, just as we may confidently assert we know where we are going to our friends or spouse, but end up getting lost. Similarly our route only gets us spirituality lost. For our route always leads to sin and emptiness, mediocrity, apathy and regret. Whence the Scripture reads: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov 14:12). In the words of Bon Jovi, we can write our plans, but write them in pencil. We must only seek God’s Plan, God’s Will for us in prayer. Thus whenever we’re made aware of what God’s plan is, then let us follow that plan whole heartedly, even if we don’t understand why, for His plan for our lives is only for our good – for now and for eternity.

Maybe we are deluded and think that we let God drive the vehicle of our lives, thinking as though we have surrendered perfectly to Him. Yet just as it takes the constancy of a passenger to surrender to the driver – trusting that the driver knows how to drive  and knows where he is going, so too we need to constantly surrender the control of the vehicle of our lives to God – trusting that He knows best. Surrendering once is not enough, we need to surrender our lives daily and momentarily to God. It is true, at times we will be sitting in the vehicle of our lives, and we will be thinking “where on earth are we going?” but we must heed the words of St. Teresa of Avila: “May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.” At times we will become impatient with ourselves, wanting to be perfect saints now! And so we will exclaim: “Are we there yet?” Our longing for the destination is good but we must understand that perfection is not a destination that is reached in this life, it is a destination which we reach at the end of our lives by persevering in the long journey of faith – with all its fantastic sceneries (consolations) and speed bumps (hardships). Not only this but we must keep in mind that “True progress quietly and persistently moves along without any notice” (St. Francis de Sales). Despite the temptation to take the helm, and despite finding ourselves struggling in letting God take control of our lives, we must “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel” (Col 1:23a) – that hope which is confident trust in God that He will make us perfect, that He forgives us when we ask pardon for doubting His driving expertise, and when we try to take-back-the-wheel; and that He will lead us to live in Divine Will and to reach that final destination called Heaven.

In the end it doesn’t matter who we are, for in varying degrees we are all unjustified backseat drivers – for God is the Creator and He alone knows how to bring our life to that destination of perfection, making it bear fruit in all richness, meaning and joy; and despite this we all act in some way as though we knew better. We find it irritating when we must deal with a backseat driver, even if they are justified. Yet nothing is more absurd than when we take the wheel of our lives from Someone who knows the way and knows how to drive, when we ourselves have no idea. For we can’t see the future, and like small children we don’t know what is best for us, even though we think we do. We didn’t even fashion our lives, but God fashioned the vehicle of our lives in the womb of our mother, since He is the sustaining principle of all existence. We can’t even see the big picture of how everything is interconnected and how there is reason behind all things.

Thus confident in our ineptness let us throw the map of our agendas out the window; and let God take complete control of our lives. Let us give to Him the driver’s seat, the keys of our will. Let us commune with Him in prayer. And let us ever keep the following verse in our minds as the seat belt to keep us in our passenger seat: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5).

If we remain the passenger we were created to be, we will enjoy life – since we will be free of the worries that come with driving and how to get where we need to be. We will be at peace – since we’ll know we’re on the right path. And we’ll be on our way to the Promised Land above, with the milk of meaning and the honey of sure hope at our fingertips. So let us not doubt our driver, but let our constant refrain be: “Lead Thou me on”.

[1] Wikipedia, ‘Backseat Driver,’
[2] Emu Bitter: An upper market Australian beer.
[3] Daria: A 90’s animated television character whose persona embodies ‘chilled-indifference’.