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Cracker Barrel: Sorta like driving at night

The new year looms and with it the customary forecasts for happiness and prosperity. Unsure of what lies ahead, we wish one another well, and inwardly hope our yearnings come to pass.

A quick glance back should serve to remind us how unpredictable things actually are. As events proceed to play out, it’s true they take on the feel of being inevitable. Given the fact that you were driving too fast, it’s no wonder you rear-ended that car at the stoplight. But moments before the crash occurred, when you were driving along tapping the steering wheel to the beat of the CD and marveling at the beauty of the falling snowflakes, the prospect of having an accident probably seemed remote.

We may say we long for adventure in our lives, but the truth is that most of the time we prefer things to play out according to plan. When they do, we may yawn and mumble about boredom, but at least we’re not thrown off course and forced to improvise.

The only trouble is that most of our learning occurs when things go amok.

Think about it. When was the last time you found yourself fully engaged in trying to solve a problem? When you were stymied by some physical challenge? When you were emotionally shaken by someone’s words or actions? When you were actually forced to think?

If you’re honest with yourself, I’m sure you’ll agree that these are the moments of genuine growth. Adversity, like necessity, is a mother of invention. It’s also the begetter of overdue change and the agent of clearer understanding. Attaining the growth, achieving the invention, allowing the necessary change may not prove enjoyable. Adaptation often hurts. But like the pupa of a butterfly bursting free of its protective covering, such a rearrangement is utterly vital to staying alive.

Confronted by the imminent new year, we would do well to remind ourselves that the only truly predictable thing about life is that it constantly brings change, and that change is inherently neither good nor bad. Nor is it necessary that we know ahead of time exactly where we are going or even why.

The novelist E. L. Doctorow, speaking of the act of composition, once said, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.” Substitute the word “living” for the word “writing” and Doctorow’s statement takes on additional wisdom.

So long as we stay alert at the steering wheel, the odds are good that we can make a wonderful adventure of our lives, even while tapping rhythms on the steering wheel and taking delight in the swirl of snowflakes. And if an accident occurs, or if we temporarily lose our way and need to ask for help, so be it.

Life is a journey. Each year brings us experiences we’ve never encountered before.

How these events affect us will depend, without fail, on the spirit in which we receive them.

(Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at