Discern

My car hit 195,000 miles today.

It will most likely hit 200,000 before the summer. I don’t do the long, delirious drives like before — back when life was an unrelenting attack until I had no choice but to become better — but I log at least 1,500 miles a month for work. Hiking season alone can put on an additional 15,000 miles on it.

The car is only 6 years old.

It’s been a quiet year, so far, for my car. It’s a needed change from last year.

Last year was like a set of dominoes, each spaced just far enough apart that I assumed the current individual piece would be the last one to fall over. I sunk in thousands of dollars over the span of 10 months — each time, something new popping up, sometimes while at the shop for something else. They didn’t know the brakes needed replacing until they fixed the faulty cap. Only in replacing the brakes did they realize the wheel bearings were on their last legs. And so on, and so forth.

In between all this, my A/C breaks and my transmission valve goes. I get an unfixable crack in my bumper. A sensor corrodes and I can’t get my key out of the ignition.

All this, spaced out just far enough apart that I couldn’t make an educated financial decision — not until I had already invested too much to back out. I probably got ripped off, at some point. Something got tacked on that didn’t need to be there. In the chaos of me just wanting my car to run right, I agreed to more than I needed to.

I thought about this, while getting a slow leak checked out in December. An unrepairable slow leak, one that required all 4 tires to replaced, since I have all-wheel drive.

One last financial punch as the year wound down.

Had I known everything my car was going to cost me, would I have invested as much as I did? Would I have cut my losses, asked simply, “What is the trade in value?” and moved on?

Because at what point are you throwing good money after bad? At what point are you draining your savings, your energy, your soul, because you are certain this will be the last problem to be addressed — fix this one last thing, and everything else will be good. At what point do you realize the folly in your statement?

I had stuck it out, primarily because I knew I would finish payments in the following November — and the idea of owning my car, free and clear, felt worth the thousands of extra dollars to get there. I did foolhardy math — if those repairs give me even an extra year, multiply that by my current monthly payment…

But beyond math, I was driven to keep my car — the car my brother-in-law sold me, before he sold his company, before he lost his battle with cancer. It’s a rare sight now, to see another Subaru on the streets with the Singer sticker on the back, especially as the years wear on. It makes me smile something sad. A little nod the other driver knows nothing about.

But even then, I knew I had to be careful. I can’t let sentimentality cloud my judgment. That’s how you guarantee investing more than is intelligent. That’s how you guarantee getting ripped off, feeling taken advantage of, realizing too late you had been agreeing to more things than you ever originally would’ve.

Or should’ve.

It’s been a good year, so far, for me as well. In some ways, a quiet year. No, not quiet. Just that the sound has shifted. The symphony plays at whisper levels and the cacophony around me has settled enough so now I can hear it.

I can feel the new decade. I’ve untangled myself where I needed to untangle. Closed chapters that been dogeared against my better judgment. Stepped back where I needed to step back, even when stepping back felt like getting walked out on. The act hasn’t been without its tears, but it’s the pangs of growth instead of injury.

My career is picking up. I’m still getting used to the new workload. I’m using the extra revenue to build up the savings I had to wipe out to keep my car running. I’m down to single digits in terms of remaining car payments; I’m already imagining what I can do with that extra money, if my car can hold out, if the promise of a few extra years follows through.

I’m using this time to build up what I spent in 2019 within my own soul, too. Perhaps the same kind of foolhardy investments, in the chaos of me just wanting everything to be all right. Sometimes it takes everything you have — or everything you had given away — to recognize that life is unfair and it’s not worth begging for a spot at a table that you’re not fully welcome at. Or worth being sore that there was never truly a spot for you in the first place.

What would I have done, had I known ahead of time what the total cost would’ve been. That’s a question I’ve routinely asked myself. And it’s, in some ways, a moot point. We can only predict and look ahead so much. A lot is taken as it comes. It always feels like a sound investment in the moment, like this problem will most definitely be the last one. It’s easy to deny that this is just one more domino piece in a predictable and unrelenting row. All you can do is have faith the cost was for a reason — or, at least, it didn’t happen for naught. That something was learned, something strengthened, something cultivated. Perhaps it honed your ability to recognize patterns and cycles, and strengthened your resolve to break them. Maybe even break them sooner.

I hear myself say something I’ve said a thousand times over in my classes.

“We’re looking to discern the difference between the discomfort of challenge and the warning signals of pain.”

My own statement hits me in a new way and I lose my wording for a moment. How often I try to tell my students to recognize the difference between breathing through challenge and ignoring pain. That there’s a difference between the things you tough it out for and the things you have to back away from. A difference between worthwhile investments and throwing good money after bad. Between acceptance and acquiescence. Between optimism and foolhardiness. Between progressing forward and being part of a toxic cycle. Between something that is simply difficult and warning signals. And that — across the board — that’s a discernment you only start honing with time.

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