My First Time – How We Learn from An Initiation

Our first kiss, our first job, our first car.  Each of these experiences marks a threshold into a new phase of life, an initiation.  We go from being an outsider to an insider of a whole new world. Before we enter that phase, we can’t really understand it from the vantage point of the previous phase.

For example, let me tell you about the first time I drove a car alone.  It went something like this:

“Dad, I’m going to take the car over to Matt’s.” 

I tried to make it a casual statement, but the electricity running through my body made it come out like a question.  That morning, a driving instructor had officially declared me fit to drive.  By myself.

Dad hesitated, then said, “Ok.”  I was out the door fast.  “Bye.”

I stepped out into the cold evening and ran to the car.  Snowflakes sparkled yellow through the streetlights, giving the night a touch of magic.  The electricity leapt from my fingers to the door handle to the steering wheel to the seat cushion.  The keys felt cool and solid in my hand as I slipped them into the ignition.  The engine came to life but it had a different sound tonight, alive and responsive. 

The snow crunched as I eased the car backward out of the driveway.  I turned toward Matt’s.  Then, it became real:  I was driving.  I was an adult. 

The plastic dash, the lighted dials, the radio buttons, the leather seats, the metal ball at the end of the stick, they all shared the same smell, a glassy, metallic, slick, soft smell of potency and freedom.  If I was not an adolescent boy I would have called it a perfume, but it had the same affect – I was high. 

I was not about to squander this sense of maturity.  I drove with a care and self-assurance that showed the world that I was competent, an old hand.  The driving instructor had said so.  “Nice going, you passed on the first try.”  I even nailed the parallel parking.  Anyone I passed, if they looked, would guess from my calm, detached expression that I was much older. 

The hours and hours of training had settled into my muscle memory.  The car responded to the coordinated actions of my hands, wheel, gas, feet, clutch, stick, brake.  I could feel the road through the car, everything responded to my will.

I came to Matt’s place, slowed and turned the wheel.  Traffic had cleared the snow from the road but on the driveway there was still about an inch.  That was just enough.  Friction abandoned me for about eight feet.  The tires, pointing in one direction but sliding in another, did not obey my hours and hours of training or my muscle memory.  I slid across Matt’s yard and into a four-inch-thick maple tree.  

The hit was dead center, as if I had placed the car with intent.  The driving instructor would have been impressed.  The grill was pushed into the radiator.  There would be no more driving this car tonight. 

The electricity had left my body, replaced by a limpness that did not want to move.  Dreading the talk, but knowing that this was a now part of the adulthood I had been initiated into, I went inside to call Dad.

“Hi Dad.  I’m ok.  But I hit a tree.”

With a trace of resignation, but none of the anger I half-expected, he said, “Yeah.  When the phone rang, I thought it might be you.”

An initiation brings the birth of a new way of seeing. It also means the death of an old way of seeing, something that was familiar and comfortable.

Before my short solo trip, I thought I knew what driving was.  Looking from the outside, I had an imagined vision of the mobility and freedom driving would give me. But I did not, I could not, see the whole picture.  I thought I would have more control but in fact, I was entering a world where there was less control, but more responsibility. And more danger.

The price of entering this adult world was the death of an earlier naivete, an ignorance of what adult responsibility required. I was naive about my own experience, about how quickly accidents happen, about how fender-benders (or worse) are almost a necessary part of the process. Dad helped me enter into the new way of seeing with his kind understanding.

After the initiation phase, we get more comfortable in the new world we have entered. We start to feel like we have it figured out. But there will come a point in our growth when we will have to let go of some of those convictions as well. They will have to die to allow new understandings to surface in the next stage.

What have been your memorable initiations? What beliefs were hard to let go of? It is worth reflecting on how they changed the way you saw yourself and your place in the world. If you are still growing, there will be more initiations to come.

Photo by Barthelemy Rigaud on Unsplash

A version of this story was first published by Underwood Press, Rue Scribe

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