Driving down a black ribbon of highway in the heat of the day, the road shimmering as it stretched out before me, I saw the mirage. In the distance, the asphalt darkened and looked as though a pool of water was spreading over the road.
My daughter, who was a pre-schooler at the time, strapped into her car seat behind me, saw it too.
“What is that?” she asked.
“What is what?”
“What is that thing in the road? Is it water?”
She was too young to realize that although it looked as though the road on which we were driving disappeared into a pond, it didn’t.
The effect was a trick of the eye as light was distorted by hot air rising over the blistering pavement.
“Oh, no” I said. “It isn’t water, it’s an optical illusion.” Then I explained that sometimes, under certain conditions, what we think we see isn’t really there at all. Our eyes, I told her, can sometimes fool us.
“Ah,” she parroted in that way children have of getting something wrong and at the same time, getting it exactly right. “An obstacle illusion.”
That was it for her. She had her answer. There wasn’t any water, or danger, and nothing would prevent us from going on our way. She turned to look out the car window – at the scenery flying past – and I drove on, pondering what she had said. Her words stuck in my mind and played over and over.
It was, out of the mouth of a babe, the perfect phrase; the simple definition of what happens to us all at one time or another: the perception of an impediment which, in fact, isn’t there at all.
As I drove and my daughter sat quietly in the back seat, I thought about my own life and the obstacle illusions I’ve encountered over the years.
I thought about how many times I’ve turned away from a chosen path and instead took a long detour around a roadblock that, when I finally got close enough to see clearly, wasn’t really there at all.
Now, when I urge my children toward something, forward to a distant challenge or goal, they will occasionally balk.
“I can’t do that,” they’ll say, surprising me. Then they list the reasons – the dark places in the road ahead – that hold them back.
They say they aren’t talented enough or smart enough or, in some cases, not attractive enough, to make it across the murky waters of fear that block their way.
That day on the highway, I could reassure my young daughter that what lay ahead of us was solid and safe because I’ve learned that things aren’t always as they seem. And, because she wasn’t yet aware that what I say isn’t as dependable as the sunrise, she relaxed.
Now that she is on the cusp of adolescence, and she’s savvy enough to know I’m not always right, she keeps a worried eye on the future the way her brother and sisters do.
I guess each of us has to learn, in our own way, that sometimes the only way to discern what is real and what is merely the illusion of an obstacle is to get close enough to touch it, to see the mirage disappear, and then reappear farther down the road, to be conquered again and again.
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