After a tragedy tilts your world, everything else can seem so insignificant. It is hard not to compare the inconveniences and pricks of life as humdrum, even if to others they are so upsetting. A matter of perspective, I guess. Is my empathy meter broken? Which would be a bad thing, but I think it just gets a little frozen every once in a while. I have also lost taking what happens to me with such ponderous interest, which is not a bad thing.
So it was not a big deal to me when I almost got hit by a car while on my mountain bike the other weekend. Nor was it a big deal when I went down on my road bike after hitting a dog that ran in front of me last week. And tonight, as I was traveling down a familiar road home on a cold November night, a car flew out of nowhere and hit my subaru.
I reeled with the shock of a blur and a jolt of compressed and unexpected energy taking me in wrong directions. I drove my car off to the shoulder when I could control it again, and watched as the other driver, agitated, jumped out of her car and came raging towards me, blaming me. But I just rolled down the window and said calmly, “I had the green light, what are you talking about?” She half ran away.
But more disturbing than the impact was her male passenger crouched beside the car, apparently hurt, and her screaming by the side of it. I know my light was green, I registered the color and shape in my mind, and I was driving slowly through the intersection. But no witness stopped. No camera was affixed on some bird’s eye perch. After the exchange with the woman I asked: Was I distracted? I was not looking at my phone. I was not messing with my radio. I clearly remember the light being green and driving slowly forward.
Do I second guess myself because I think I am so prone to mistakes? Because the clearly distraught and oddly acting woman seemed so sure? Because I am culturally programmed as a woman to not be convicted of my reason? Because I know grief and disappointment, as heavy as a silent metal, rests in my gut and may have had something to do with the accident?
But no, the light was green. I drive that intersection every day of my life except the odd Saturday or Sunday.
What bothers me is a witness to the irrationality and unexpectedness of that woman’s rage and suffering. Have I not wanted to scream at the side of the road for the injustice and sadness of it all? But what does that do? Her rage may have been in part induced by her fault in it all. But God only knows. I bet even she doesn’t.
I have been having a discussion with a friend about determinism vs. choice, in faith and in life. It has made me think about responsibility and the weight of choice, as well as the assent to the chaos and emotions over which we do not seem to have control. We are free, but within limits not set by us. And sometimes we are not free.
What do I feel from that Cartesian well of emotion in me tonight? The wreck was unfortunate, but no one was paralyzed. No one will die, I am pretty sure. I feel sore, and my head hurts, but these are just temporary thorns. Tomorrow at the Buechner Institute, the poet Christian Wiman will give a talk and submit to an interview. He has gone through a physical pain like white lightening in his bones during treatments for a terrible cancer that has since gone into remission.
I look forward to hearing what he has to say, after reading his finely crafted words. And I wonder, how to compare mental anguish with physical anguish? And are the two as separate as we might make them out to be? I think they are intimately intertwined.
Should I post this tonight, even as I do not trust my addled self to have written something clear?
Whatever I decide, there will be something of the cold, unbending arm of fate mixed in with my own will – for fate gave me the subject, and maybe the ability for words, but will gave me the choice to write and the words themselves.