Running on Empty

I had finished the 100-mile drive from Gainesville, Florida, to Orlando to visit my aging mother in a rehab center. I was relieved and heartened to find that she was doing well. After a seven-hour visit I was making my way through theperpetual traffic jam of the city when the red battery light lit up on my dashboard. This had happened once before while I was on the interstate. My alternator had failed, and I was driving on battery power. The whole electrical system was failing by the time I’d gotten home. It seemed like a miracle when the car came to a creeping stop just as I’d turned into my driveway.

This time, I thought, I wouldn’t be taking any such chances. I stayed in Orlando and drove the car to the nearest Firestone dealer the next morning. A friendly fellow came out, popped the hood, and scrutinized the engine. I explained that the Gainesville Firestone had replaced the alternator and battery not six months earlier, after the aforementioned incident.

“Look here,” he said. “There’s oil dripping from the valve cover onto the alternator. It’s throwing off the electrical. You’ll need to have that gasket replaced.” Knowing I was going back home that afternoon, I asked him if the vehicle would be okay.

“Is the dashboard light on steady or intermittent?” he asked.

“Intermittent,” I replied.

“It should be fine,” he said. “Just see to that valve cover gasket as soon as you get back.”

I left my mother around midday in good spirits and drove west to Florida’s Turnpike, beginning the two-hour ride home. Ten miles south of the halfway point, the battery light came on again. It stayed on this time. A few minutes later, I was essentially in the middle of nowhere when the car began to die. Dashboard lights flashed on and off as the battery ran down—the dreaded sign of another bad alternator. I eased onto the shoulder and kept driving, as I watched the speedometer drop to 60, then 50, then 40, and then 30. The car refused to take the gas. The power steering went out. Figuring I was at least five miles from the next exit, I tried my best not to think about being stranded on the highway in 90-degree heat. Anxious but knowing there was nothing more I could do, I took my foot off the gas.

Something unexpected suddenly happened—the car began to accelerate. Incredulous, I went with it, barely touching the gas. It seemed impossible. I was soon cruising again at 70 miles per hour. This resurrection lasted until the next exit came into view, when the car again shuddered and began losing power and speed.

I made it to the exit, off the ramp, and just barely onto the shoulder of the intersecting road before the engine misfired one last time and shut off. Luckily, I was just outside a Sunoco station with a convenience store. A clerk named Kathy, an absolute angel, graciously called a local towing company and made all the arrangements for my highway rescue. A tow truck showed up and I arrived at the Ocala Firestone at 5 p.m. I signed for the $200 tow and went inside. After informing me that he could make no promises at that late hour, the Firestone agent got the car into a bay, diagnosed a failed alternator, and replaced it under warranty at no charge. I was back on the road in time to pull into my driveway before dark.

That night, as I reflected on the day’s events, I was struck by the truth that what happens to us matters far less than what we take away from it—the lesson, the realization, the instruction. The moment on the highway when I recognized I had come to the end of what my will and resources could accomplish, and I instinctively took my foot off the gas, will be a metaphor I won’t soon forget.

In many situations along life’s highway, we find ourselves in a position where we’ve done all we can do. More effort does nothing but exhaust us. Like it or not, we’re in the hands of a higher power. I learned that the simple willingness to cooperate with my higher power can work miracles—including synchronicities, happy coincidences, and serendipitous reversals that can save the day. It requires recognizing when we have done all we can do, and now we must take our foot off the gas.

We must do this with a certain resignation about whatever comes next. It can’t be strategic, since any strategy falls short of knowing when we have reached our limit. There are no guarantees. Yet it seems to me it was precisely at this point of resignation—of releasing my will—that some usually-hidden resource intervened. All it needed was for me to get out of the way and acknowledge my utter dependency on something beyond myself.

To be sure, the dramatic quality of my highway miracle made this point more obvious. But the insight I received was that this is the reality all the time. As a rule, we may only avail ourselves of these hidden, nonlocal, synchronous resources when we’re in dire straits. I don’t think it has to be that way. We can “run on empty,” out of gas, out of power, out of options, because we’re never really running on anything visible. Rather, we draw our life from the invisible, from a realm of generosity, efficiency, fortuitous surprises, and stunning ingenuity that can reach into our experience and make its presence known the moment we’re willing to step back and let go. To live in the steady mindfulness of this collaboration with the unseen may be, in the end, what gets us home.

Author Biography: 

Philip Golabuk founded and directs PhilosophyCenter, an online resource providing philosophical counseling services and the Fate Project which offers a simple, five-point, self-study program for emotional and spiritual well-being based on the ancient Greek view.