LEARNING ON THE LINES
By JIM NICHOLS
It was a perfect place on a sunny day. The asphalt was black and smooth. White lines were painted with precise slants with four parallel rows stretching the length of the parking lot. It was bounded by a residence hall on one side and academic buildings on the other three. Driveways led into the area, but there was no traffic. Virtually no cars were parked since the university was shut down for a while.
Besides me, there was only one other person there. My estimate is that he was perhaps fifteen years old, lean and strong. The bicycle looked new, bright and shiny. It almost seemed too small for the length of the rider, but sometimes you must ride a bike that is not the exact right size. The rider was apparently concentrating on riding, practicing, and learning how to find just the correct speed to ride while at the same time staying upright on the bicycle. An odd thing about a bike is that a certain speed is necessary in order to maintain balance, but the faster you go, the more danger there is for a crash. It is a dilemma.
The rider did not look up at all but maintained a constant stare at the area just ahead of him. His back straightened a bit when he relaxed and hit a straight area, but when he turned to reverse his course, he leaned forward more as he tensed. Around and around the parking lot he went.
What fifteen-year-old boy does not know how to ride a bicycle? He was clearly learning, as his wobbling was profound on occasion. He was practicing in a safe place—no cars, dogs, or people, except for one trying to watch without looking as if he were watching.
Do you remember learning to ride a bicycle? I believe it is one of the earliest personal adventures for many children; it certainly was for me. A parallel experience was learning to drive a car.
On a bicycle one is out in the air and moving oh so much faster than walking or even running, especially when going down a hill. Dangers lurk, however.
I learned to ride on sidewalks; streets were for cars. A thick hedge bordered our next-door neighbors’ yard from ours and extended right to the edge of the sidewalk. During my learning trials, I lost control, went off the sidewalk, and rode through the hedge resulting in many cuts, bruises, and embarrassment.
I also had boundaries as to how far I could ride from home initially. Stretching those boundaries one morning after a hard rain, I tried to ride on a sidewalk in a forbidden area. It was covered by washed over mud. Not understanding much physics, I found that the tires picked up the mud and packed it between the tires and the bike frame, rendering the wheels unable to turn. Dismounting, of course, put me directly in the mud personally. With tears in my eyes, I walked my barely moveable bike back home and explained to my mother how I had broken the boundaries and made a mess.
I admired the boy in the parking lot. He was starting an adventure that would also be helpful in his life in several ways. When one is young, life offers multiple opportunities to learn new skills, concepts, and arguments. Perhaps because we are young, it seems reasonable to take those chances, become embarrassed, even face some dangers. Taking those risks is a major part of our growth.
As we age, some reluctance to risk may set in. I fear that when that happens in me, growth also slows. Opportunities for new skills, concepts, and arguments still exist, but they seem less attractive now. Furthermore, it is embarrassing since others all seem to have mastered those skills years ago.
Perhaps a quarantine clarifies just how stuck we are in our lives. It exposes how there really are other ways of going through the day. There are alternative methods for accomplishing our tasks. Furthermore, there are alternative methods for loving one another.
If I translate “alternative methods” theologically, I come close to “God’s mercies.” Scripture says more than once that God’s mercies are new every day. The boy in the parking lot is discovering that one of God’s mercies is the joy and utility of riding a bicycle; it is a new task with new dangers. I am on the lookout for more in my life.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain