Most mornings, just seconds after I back out of the driveway, I’m confronted with what often turns out to be one of the day’s most crucial decisions. At the first stop sign on the drive to work, I can choose to turn left or right.
On paper, it’s a seemingly simple calculus. Turn right and, assuming highway traffic is moving at the normal rush-hour pace, I’ll be sitting at my desk and sipping a cup of hot coffee in 30 minutes. Turn left and, even if I hit most of the lights, I’ll spend 45 minutes navigating the side streets of North Minneapolis and puttering down a two-lane stretch of the Great River Road, which winds along the Mississippi. After that, I still need five minutes to find a parking spot and track down some caffeine.
Knowing that I cannot talk to a “morning person” until lunch is served and that I’ve battled an addiction to snooze buttons since I could tell time, when I hit that first intersection my instinct is to turn right. This is usually because I’ve already gotten caught trying to steal a few extra minutes of sleep, and if I put the pedal down I might just catch up in time to get started on schedule.
What I learned over the past summer, however, is that I should not only turn left whenever possible, I should plan on it — like regular trips to the gym or a weekend away. Because in the extra 20 minutes it takes to go that slow road, I have a chance to take stock of where I’ve been, what I hope to achieve, and how I want to show up for my family and coworkers.
In fact, it’s in this drive along the river that, really for the first time, I’ve glimpsed the sorts of benefits that spiritual thinkers and left-brained scientists associate with meditation, yoga, and other daily exercises in mindfulness.
Maybe it’s the sweet air that blows through my open car window on sunny days, or the hypnotic roll of the tires when it rains, or the light bouncing off the river and playing on the trees. Or maybe it’s just the lack of traffic and impatient drivers. But the journey plays on my senses in such a way that allows for a couple of chest-expanding breaths, unclenches my mind (if only for a few precious minutes), and imbues me with a calming sense of purpose.
Even when the drive puts me a few more minutes in the hole, I’m better equipped to deal with the inevitable surprises and emotional bonfires that mark everyday life. I’m less likely to overreact to certain situations or underestimate the needs of other people. I simply save time by not wasting energy on stuff I can’t control.
Of course, despite all evidence to the contrary, I still manage to talk myself into the fast lane at least 60 percent of the time. There are a dozen reasons why I regularly go this wrong way, each one worthy of its own essay (and those are just the ones I know of). Still, for me, simply recognizing that there is a better path has been a revolutionary first step toward something bigger than the sum of my bad habits.
It’s also served as a reminder of how lucky I am. Because I’ve been blessed with good health, a job I love, and a host of wonderful friends and wise mentors, I’m relatively well equipped to muck my way through life’s daily trials.
Not everybody gets the chance to embark on a beautiful detour on the way to work. Still, I believe that nearly everyone has access to his or her own left turn. Some may know the access point; others may discover it as they’re gliding along on a bike, ambling down a shady trail, listening to music, or reading a favorite author. Some may find it in the laughter of a child or the silence of prayer.
Some might even find a few breadcrumbs scattered in the inspirational stories that regularly fill the pages of magazines like this one. As one of Experience Life’s 16 dedicated staff members, nothing would make me happier than such a discovery — except maybe tomorrow’s drive down the Mississippi.
David Schimke is Experience Life’s editor in chief.