“It’s like driving at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” (E.L. Doctorow)

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—Originally published May 20, 2017—

Who is E.L. Doctorow?

I’ve always liked this quotation. So I welcome the opportunity to write about it. It’s a simple yet profound reminder of an important truth about life. We’ll address that in a moment.

E.L.Doctorow was an American novelist who published his most successful works during the 1970’s and 1980’s. His best-selling novels incorporated actual historical figures as well as fictional characters. His best-known novels were The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Billy Bathgate, all of which were made into films. Doctorow is considered one of the most important American writers during the last century. He died in 2015 at the age of 84.

Picture yourself driving on a desolate road

Picture yourself driving late at night on a desolate country road. The road ahead is pitch-black. There’s no moon out, there are no streetlights, and there are no other cars on the road. Of course your headlights are on. But imagine for a moment that you’re driving WITHOUT HEADLIGHTS. I’m not recommending it, I’m just asking you to IMAGINE it.

You have no idea what’s coming up on the road ahead. There could be one or more deer standing in the middle of the road. There might be a massive pothole right where your wheels will pass. If it’s winter, you could encounter a stretch of black ice. Not to mention objects that may have blown onto the road or fell out of some unsuspecting pickup truck. Without your headlights you’d have no way of seeing what’s coming. And no way to prepare for any action you might need to take. You’d be at the mercy of what lies ahead—nothing of which you can EVEN SEE in time to respond as you must.

Of course, neither you nor I would drive under such conditions without headlights. In fact, we’d have our high beams on until another car appears. But even though your headlights only shine on a relatively small section of the road—the light is more than adequate for you to drive safely to your destination. You don’t need to see beyond the range of the headlights. You only need to see as far as their light extends. It might be 100 yards. It might be less. But it’s enough for you to travel safely the entire journey. Or as Doctorow observes, you can make the whole trip that way.”

It’s like the journey of life itself

It seems clear that Doctorow is drawing an analogy to the journey of life itself. That the ROAD is our life journey. That none us can see very far DOWN THAT ROAD. That none of us can see into the FUTURE—which the upcoming road conditions illustrate. In fact, we can’t see into the future AT ALL. We forget this sometimes. We cannot see even 10 minutes into the future. We can only predict what MIGHT HAPPEN. We can never know the FUTURE with certainty until it becomes the PRESENT. But this doesn’t prevent us from planning and negotiating the unknowns as they actually arrive.

Though we cannot see more than 100 yards down the road ahead, we can navigate the road successfully. Likewise, though we cannot see into the future AT ALL, we can navigate the journey successfully. In fact, we can plan very specifically by way of the light in front of us. We don’t need to KNOW what will happen in 20 years, in a decade, next month, or even next week. This is a good thing because we CANNOT KNOW these things anyway. We can only move forward a little bit at a time. Actually only a moment at a time. We can only travel as far as our headlight beams” allow. But that’s enough. We can travel the whole journey of life that way. We don’t travel without the headlights. Nor do we travel too fast for the headlights to reveal what’s ahead. We travel just fast enough without traveling too fast.

We struggle because we don’t know the future

The reason we struggle is because of our uncertainty about the future. Most of us are a bit uncomfortable not knowing what tomorrow will actually bring. Which is why some wise wag said a long time ago that we’re more comfortable with the certainty of misery than with the misery of uncertainty. We don’t like uncertainty. And it can cause us misery. And yet there’s nothing more uncertain than the future. No mortal really knows the future. They’re only deluding themselves if they think they do.

Let this be a reminder

So let Doctorow’s quotation be a reminder that you don’t need to know or see EVERYTHING in the future. You only need to know enough to make hopeful, wise, and realistic plans. If we don’t drive too fast. If we don’t ignore or deny the limitations. If we don’t delude ourselves into thinking that tomorrow is certain or known—the journey will be much more pleasant. We can take each day as it comes. We need not be overly concerned about tomorrow. When tomorrow arrives, we’ll make the adjustments we need to make. We’ll take the appropriate action when our headlights reveal what’s up ahead. In fact, we can make the whole trip that way. 

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Copyright © 2019 by Samuel Rodenhizer
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