I could tell something was wrong.

“What’s up, Son?”

“I’m stuck in the intersection of Green and Lincoln and I can’t get my car to move!”

Green and Lincoln is a busy intersections in the town where he lives.  If he was stuck there, he was in a heap of trouble.  “I’ve been stuck here like ten minutes!  Cars are everywhere, people are honking and hollering at me!”

“What do you want me to do, Son?”

“Can you come and get me?”  His voice cracked.  He was near tears.

It was 10:30 at night and I was ready to go to bed, but I replied, “I’ll be right there.”

The backdrop of this story is that he had just inherited his sister’s car.  It had a 5-speed, something he’d never driven before.  His sister provided his first and only 5-speed driving lesson on Thursday, the day before he started a job delivering pizzas.  The call came Saturday night, the second night of his job. I was in town for a visit.

As I was driving to his rescue, he called to say he’d finally gotten the car going and had made it back to the pizza place.  By the time I arrived there, he had another delivery to make.  We made a couple of deliveries in my rental car while he calmed down.  After the deliveries, he asked,  “Can you give me some kind of hint for how to take off in first gear.  I just can’t do it tonight.”

He knew how to do it. His one and only lesson had gone well. But in the pressure of the delivery and in the middle of the intersection, he had lost the ability and the confidence.  “Press on the accelerator, give it plenty of gas, and then ease off the clutch slowly.  Make it two separate steps rather than trying to do them both at the same time.”  I accompanied him on his next delivery in his car.  In the dozen stops and starts in the cross-town delivery, he didn’t kill the engine once.

“That little bit of information REALLY helped” was his final word as I left him at 1:00 a.m. to make deliveries on his own.

So why am I telling this story?  I was stuck just this morning; stuck with worry and fear about something over which I had no control.  I felt like I was in the middle of an intersection just wringing my hands and pacing in circles.  Everyone I know gets stuck once in a while.  We never know when it might happen.  Like my son, we are more likely to get stuck when we’re under pressure or scrutiny.  When someone is looking over my shoulder or yelling at me, I can’t think.  Big decisions with unknown consequences can immobilize.  Intense grief or a traumatic event can freeze us in our tracks.  In fact, any surprising or significant change can suddenly strand us in the middle of life’s intersection.  We forget what we know.  What once was simple suddenly seems complicated, even impossible.  Our confidence is out the window.

In my therapy work with college students, I have sat with many who were immobilized by trauma, stunned with a sudden loss, paralyzed by a major decision, or simply unable to move under the pressures of life.  My son attributed his restoration of confidence to “that little bit of information.”  Sometimes a little bit of information can be a lifesaver.  But there’s usually more involved.

When I led a grief group for college students, providing information about the grieving process was one thing that was helpful to the students.  They were relieved to know that what they were feeling, thinking, and experiencing were not signs they were going crazy, but rather were normal reactions to an intense situation.  But that information also came with assurance that with time, space, and attention to their loss, the intensity of their loss would subside.

My son would have figured it out on his own if he’d had the time and space to relax and think.  But stressful situations usually don’t come with the luxuries of time and space.  That’s when I need a calm presence, someone by my side physically or emotionally who can allow me to catch my breath and slow my racing thoughts.  I need an “I’m here” from someone else so I can remember what I know.