I didn’t get my learner’s permit right away. I wasn’t road hungry like the kids whose moms picked them up early from school on their 16th birthday and brought them straight to the DMV to take the permit test. Something about it made me wary where others were made bold. Maybe they’d had cool older siblings with cool older friends and had at least witnessed somebody else move through that milestone.
I, quite simply, did not believe anybody in their right mind should put me, a child in my own estimation, behind the wheel of a car.
So, I put the whole thing off for a while. I had the booklet at home, and I read it. I studied it a little, and when I took the permit test for the first time, I did not pass. Foiled by a question about which way to turn your wheels when parked on a hill, I became a member of, truly, one of the saddest clubs: People Who Have Cried at the DMV.
It took me months to gather my pride and try the test again, but I did get my permit, and I did start driving, and I did have a meltdown about stop sign logic in a grocery store parking lot. Driving as a whole made me apprehensive in those early days. I insisted on using both my feet on the pedals. The radio couldn’t be on. Main roads made me feel like a drafted fighter pilot in a Vietnam War movie who really just wanted to be home working in his Pop’s hardware store. “I never asked for this!” is something he might scream coming under enemy fire over Laos or something I might scream while white-knuckling the steering wheel of my yellow VW Bug.
As a result of my driving apprehension, I was kind of jealous of my best friend Jessie.
Jessie had the bravado of a old-timey cabbie from day one. She used one foot for the pedals. She drove in flip flops even though we’d been warned it was dangerous. Her hands were relaxed, her face untroubled, and she’d already mastered the thing where you put your arm behind the passenger headrest and glance over your shoulder when you reverse.
Jessie lived at the top of a steep hill. To get to my house from hers, you had to come down the hill and turn left onto a major road. At that intersection, we had a stop sign and the major road most certainly did not. Cars whipped past in both directions. It was a kind of nightmare for me who, at that point, could do nothing with certainty behind the wheel of a car let alone make a left turn into flowing traffic with troubling sight lines. On an incline.
Jessie’s dad was taking me home one afternoon, and he let Jessie drive their RAV4. We got to that left turn and she, in all her glorious ease, checked both ways and pulled smoothly out onto that major road. I braced myself for a wave of terror–honking horns and squealing brakes–but I didn't feel it. I felt safe. Her confidence in her ability to do this absolutely scary, new thing actually made her do it more safely than if she’d worried about it at all.
That’s when I realized an important thing. If you do things that are frightening with confidence, self-assuredly, in the spirit of someone who knows what they're doing, the frightening thing actually becomes easier.
An anxious mind wants to think that anything other than anxiety is recklessness. But Jessie made that turn so easy not by second guessing herself, not by hesitating and then gunning it, but by trusting her instinct.
And I think about Jessie whenever I do scary things. Like now. I'm presently standing on a precipice, about to make a leap into completely new territory. Much about my life will change in a month or so, and I feel afraid sometimes, but the Jessie Principle has proven that if I just proceed with more confidence than caution, I’ll feel the safety of the decision swell around me. And, good lord, I might enjoy moments of it all.
And a word to the wise: that thing about turning your wheels the right way when parked on a hill is no joke. I got a ticket for it last month.