Learning to drive on the opposite side of the road can be a nerve-racking ordeal. At least that was my experience. At first muscle memory continuously screams at you to stop driving with a death wish and switch sides of the road now. NOW for goodness sake!
During those early days of developing foreign driving skills you must thoroughly consider each and every action. You need to think your way through even the simplest of movements so you don’t just react and find yourself heading directly towards oncoming traffic.
It happened to me.
During my first months of driving in the USA I made a couple of seemingly innocent misjudgments, usually when turning out of a driveway onto a road. My conditioned Australian driving habits would briefly surface and I’d find myself on the wrong side of the road. Thankfully I was living in the rural backwoods and, as traffic was sparse, nothing more exciting happened than a red face.
Then the big wake-up call arrived.
I was leaving the Albany airport after dropping off some passengers when, yep, you guessed it, I turned out onto the highway but unconsciously chose the Aussie side of the road. It took me only seconds to realize my mistake but, as it was a divided highway, I couldn’t cross to the correct side. And barreling directly towards me was an armada of cars bent on making me another road statistic.
I’m not a “hot driver”; I like to drive in a steady and calm manner. But on that day I made an exception. Yanking the steering wheel hard to the right and flooring the accelerator pedal, I instantly filled the air with copious clouds of black tire smoke as I did the fastest, tightest, and noisiest U-turn in my life. I’m sure the Albany Airport was shrouded in acrid smoke for hours afterwards. And I’m pretty certain I also set an Albany Airport record for the stupidest thing a foreigner has ever done.
But I did survive to tell the tale and miraculously caused no damage to myself or anyone else. But it was a good forty miles further up the North-way before my heart rate began showing any signs of returning to normal. Does it surprise you that I’ve never, ever, turned out of any airport or driveway since and ended up on the wrong side of the road?
After several years of residency in the States and no further Airport incidents, I returned to Australia for a visit. During the flight across the Pacific I was more than a little apprehensive that my years in the States had compromised my Australian driving skills. But no sooner had I slid behind the steering wheel on the “wrong” side of a car than it all came back in a rush. Within minutes my old Aussie road skills cut in and for a few weeks I tooled around the Melbourne streets like a native.
Funnily enough, when I returned to the States none of my American driving skills had faded either, and this got me to thinking about conditioned responses. Once I’d been conditioned to only drive on the left side of the road and anything else seemed impossibly complex. Then I was reconditioned to drive on the right. Finally, I found that those two conditionings could be used or not used at will, depending on the circumstances.
What if what we know as “right” is merely a conditioned and limited response? And what if out of that conditioning and limitation we are continually assuming that what we experience and decide on should apply to everyone in every circumstance? Can you see here the seeds of endless conflict?
How many arguments have we passionately taken part in burdened with such arrogant assumptions? How many disparaging words have we used to denigrate someone we believe is wrong or inferior? And how many wars have we fought in the name of preserving what we think is right for everyone?
Conditioned responses are extraordinarily helpful when performing repeated mechanical actions. They relieve us of the boredom and frustration of needing to think repeatedly through every small action. For a time they allow us to function on autopilot.
But conditioned responses ultimately trip us up and cause untold harm when we insist on using them to interact with people and life at large. It’s very much like trying to join in a conversation where everyone is talking but no one is listening.
We convince ourselves that there’s no hope of changing what we think and feel, and then point our fingers at others and insist they should change instead. But we can change; it’s just another conditioned response that persuades us of the opposite.
Unlearn the useless and limiting stuff and then go about relearning with fresh, open eyes. It’s a guaranteed road to freedom.