Friday, December 11, 2009

White Vans

I took an Animal Behavior class in college. I was fascinated to learn that much of what we observe in the creatures around us boils down to calculus. Take a squirrel, for example. The scurrying behavior of the little grey furball can be quantified by a mathematical formula demonstrating that a squirrel naturally (and without a calculator) will gather the maximum amount of resources it can use with the minimum amount of energy output. Maximum energy in, minimum energy out. Calculus.

Squirrels also gather and bury acorns all over their territories during the fall, which they then access in the winter. They’re not smart enough to remember where they buried every single acorn. But they WILL naturally remember a sufficient percentage of their hiding spots to provide the necessary resources to get them through the winter with the least hassle. Maximum energy in, minimum energy out.

I am reminded of this concept every time I find myself multi-tasking. I make a list of items I need from four different places, look at my schedule and my gas gauge and decide in which order I will visit each location, taking into account weather and traffic patterns and whether any items I will be gathering have special temperature requirements (I don’t buy ice cream first in the summer, you see.)

The problem is that I’m not very good at calculus. It is at these times when I’m aiming for maximum energy input with minimum energy output that things inevitably go wrong. I forget my checkbook or the coupon I needed. I find out the one item for which I stopped at Cub is actually sold out. There’s an accident on the freeway and I sit for forty-five minutes in a four-lane parking lot. Inevitably, I’m irritated, tense, sometimes even near tears, especially when I have an absolute deadline like my kids’ school bus delivering them to my home.

One morning, probably a year or so ago, in the midst of one of these frantic, mathematically flawed rampages, I found myself driving west on 494 with my shoulders practically in my ears. As the highway wrapped northward and rush hour traffic whipped around me suddenly I spied in the rear view mirror a white van. In short order, it passed me on the left, followed, maybe 30 seconds later, by another white van. A caravan? I mused. But they had different logos on them. A moment later, I spotted a third white van—with yet different distinguishing marks. I smiled at the coincidence, happy to be thinking about something besides my stress levels. And then a fourth one passed me. Shortly after, yet another white van (a minivan this time) eased into position behind me in my lane.

I thought, What does this mean? (I am Lutheran, after all). Five different white vans all around me in the middle of my self-created insanity. What were the odds?

A very clear message came through: “Slow down. Nothing you’re doing is that important. Look around you.”

My agitation evaporated. With a sense of refreshed perspective, I relaxed in my seat. Traffic moved smoothly. I got my errands done and got home in plenty of time for whatever was so important that I have no memory of it now. That day I saw several other white vans, trucks, pick-ups, even mail trucks, and every time, I felt a renewed sense of peace.

I am not a squirrel, of course. But I suppose it’s when I’m running that ‘maximum input-minimum output’ wheel that my behavior is most animal. Instinctive, rather than thoughtful. Many, many times since then I have had moments of stressful rushing and been passed at just the right moment by a white van. I don’t necessarily believe that God somehow orchestrates traffic to present me with these vehicles. What I do believe is that God used that odd experience with the white vans to snap me out of my self-absorbed, power-mad, hyper-orchestrating long enough to remember what’s important.

And it ain’t calculus.

1 comment:

  1. I adore this post! I love how seemingly "innocuous" things (like white vans) can hold such special and powerful meaning - if we are just aware enough, present enough, to see it. Delightful!