Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Cruise Control

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Operation Inspiration

The goal of these articles is to help people find meaning in mundane situations and realize that there is always so much more than meets the eye. That’s why this week’s deep insight is one that I had while behind the wheel, a place where quite often our brains tend to wander off since once you’re experienced, you can do most of the driving without needing what’s called “active attention.” That’s when you need to pay full attention to something instead of being able to do it with your mind on something else.

Let’s say you’re unloading a dishwasher. When you’re grabbing spoons out of the silverware holder you can do so quickly without much thought. However, when you’re removing a sharp knife which is pointed upwards, you need to be very deliberate in what you do.

New drivers are keenly aware of every street sign, potential obstacle, and pothole. It sounds good but it can actually be dangerous. Their hyperfocus on every little thing can make them nervous and jittery. An experienced driver who doesn’t use as much active attention takes things in stride and is more relaxed. In an unfamiliar area, or when it’s pouring rain though, even experienced drivers will shut the radio or ask passengers to stop talking so they can focus.

Technology has been developed to help drivers. Cruise control was around as early as the 1900s but not widely available until the late 1960s. It is a system that maintains the speed of a car, so the driver doesn’t need to use his foot to regulate the throttle and gas pedal.

Today we even have cars that nearly entirely drive themselves so there must be a reason for it. My car, for example, has numerous safety features that help when my semi-active attention is in play. It can sense when a car in front of me is slowing down and hit the brakes for me. It alerts me if I start to go over a line on the road or if I keep my hands off the wheel too long.

One time the car braked extremely hard when the car turning ahead of me was very slow in moving and it believed impact was imminent. That sort of jolted me into thinking about these safety features. What I noticed were that most of them were tied to cruise control. If I’m manually pressing the accelerator, the car won’t brake when the car ahead of me stops. If I start to drift when cruise isn’t engaged, it doesn’t gently nudge me back into my own lane.

As I began to deconstruct the lesson therein, I considered that using cruise control means giving up a certain amount of autonomy. If I set the speed and let the car choose how to accelerate or ease up on the gas, it may not sprint forward when I think it ought to but it will get me where I’m going in an efficient manner, saving gas and reducing bursts of speed followed by braking to slow me down – in other words, unnecessary jolts.

It seems that in order to take advantage of all the best safety features of the car I have to give up a certain amount of control. I can’t just do what I want and expect it to swoop in and save me. If I don’t engage the cruise control and relinquish some of my own personal control, then the car will just let me do what I want even if I end up hurting myself.

Hashem is much the same way. As long as we want to be in control, Hashem wants to give us the opportunity to drive towards our own destiny. Now, that doesn’t mean He totally abandons us to our will because if something is not part of His plan He will stop it. In our analogy, this would be the equivalent of the airbags that go off whether we choose them to or not.

In order to enjoy the protections the car offers, we have to engage the cruise control, basically telling the car, “I trust you.” In order to earn Hashem’s protection and enjoy a smooth ride, we need to do the same thing. When we follow the Torah and trust that Hashem built everything into it to care for us and get us where we need to be, that also engages the safety features and we are protected from the hazards of the road.

Giving up the control doesn’t hinder us. On the contrary, it frees us to focus on the experience and take in the beauty of the world around us instead of always just trying to get ahead. Should we need to do something drastic in the moment we can, but under normal circumstances, the more we are ready to give up control, the smoother ride we will enjoy as we cruise down the road of life.

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