Of all the things that have captured my attention over the years, two have held it for as long as I can remember: human behavior and classic cars.
My favorite class in high school was an experimental (at the time) class called Peer Counseling. I majored in Human Factors at the Air Force Academy (how I got there is a story for another time). As a pilot in the Air Force, I chose to pursue an advanced degree in Counseling. Even my seminary experience involved an emphasis in Pastoral Care and Counseling.
On the car front, my first car was a ’57 Chevy—a beautiful, but mechanically decrepit car. I reluctantly sold it before graduating from the Air Force Academy. A few years later, I somehow managed to convince my pregnant wife, shortly after moving to UP-upstate New York (practically Canada), to let me buy a ’64 Mercury Comet convertible…with no floorboards. After stranding us (top down, of course) on its maiden voyage…at night…in a snow fall…before cell phones, the car just sat in our garage until I found it a new home. While the priorities for my growing family prevented me from engaging in very many similar “investments,” my soft spot for basket case vehicles is still pretty legend in our house.
You may be wondering, “Where is he going with this?” You are not alone. Until recently, I saw these as two radically disparate passions of mine. Even as I was making initial plans for The Workshop, I thought of car restoration as just a cool backdrop to therapeutic conversations for those who also happened to be into that sort of thing. It wasn’t until a friend suggested the therapeutic value of the activity itself that I began to link the two.
For example, when cleaning out a gummed-up carburetor, a tangible metaphor emerges to the mental gunk that may have built up over the years—the stuff that is sapping energy or creating misfires in communication. But the real similarities show up when you take a look at what the helping relationship itself is all about.
Fundamentally, counseling and related fields are about fostering positive and lasting change. Whether operating on the level of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or behavior, the goal for the recipient is always for some personal change to occur through the healing process. And there are several ways that change process bears a remarkable similarity to car restoration:
1. Both are hard. Let’s face it: nobody really is inclined to change. Many times, our experiences, relationships, and biases have rubbed, bent, flooded, and muddied the connecting points of our soul until they are tougher to loosen than the rusty bolts on the leaf springs of that old Chevy. And without the proper care, patience, and preparation, too much torque on those stubborn areas will have the same frustrating result as a sheared bolt—additional damage and “rapidly discarded” tools without any corresponding positive effect. Conversely, given time and the softening effects of grace and compassion (and the right amounts of heat and pressure at the proper time), the same hard place can be worked loose.
2. Both can be costly. I’m always amazed at how much some enthusiasts will spend for a frame-off, concours-quality restoration. It is usually more than the car is worth—or at least more than someone reasonable would pay for it. However, reason is rarely the deciding factor for those that undertake such an ordeal. Nostalgia, sentiment, and other such unquantifiable factors usually carry more weight. Similarly, factors driving personal change can rarely be measured on a number line or “crunched” by a calculator. However, these factors often feel more painful than any hit to our bank account. Challenging a long-held belief that has led to past unhealthy reactions can feel like mental bankruptcy. Setting appropriate boundaries in our tough relationships can make us feel like we are giving up everything—especially if those relationships happen to end as a result. Regardless of the temporary costs involved, heathy personal change is always worth the price paid.
3. Things often look worse before getting better. Sometimes, before the actual work begins, a project car can look pretty good. It’s sitting up on all four tires, and from across the parking lot the finish doesn’t look too bad. But when you get closer, the dry rot becomes apparent, and you can see the places that, if you pushed hard enough, the body panel would turn to dust under the thin coat of paint. As the work begins, more problems emerge, making you wonder if the effort will be worth it. Psychosocially, we tend to work hard to gloss over the problem spots in our lives. We develop elaborate compensating strategies to keep our “issues” under wraps. Dealing with those issues necessarily means exposing them—laying bare the rust; cutting out the parts that no longer function; welding in the new. And for whatever relatively brief period of time it takes us to smooth out the rough edges related to change, we can find ourselves longing for the old familiar veneer.
4. Hope is what keeps us moving forward. When I’ve happened to be with true car nuts looking at a project car, I’ve noticed they have a supernatural ability to see past the pile of rust and gunk in front of us to envision a masterpiece. They imagine themselves behind the wheel…or running a dust cloth along the perfectly lacquered fender. In order to motivate personal change this same sense of hope must exist as a pervasive force. We must be able to see where the change is leading—to see ourselves as our biggest Fan sees us—His own image reflected back to Himself in progressively increasing measure.