My experience behind the wheel
I am told that around 8:00 p.m. on October 28, 2022, I had a car accident. Empirical evidence certainly supports such a hypothesis. If the picture alone isn’t enough, I can report that I had extensive bruising between my knees and on both breasts, a minor liver laceration with internal bleeding, and an Uber ride home from the emergency room wearing only a hospital gown (dress stolen, bra cut off) and blue hospital socks (shoes remained in the car). I received a substantial payoff for my car, which was a total loss, and a verdict of “case dismissed” from the magistrate of the Hoke County traffic court. Oh, and as recently as yesterday I still managed to find little pieces of shattered safety glass in the pocket of my leather jacket.
Otherwise, I don’t even know that it happened. I remember turning on my signal, entering the left-turn lane, looking carefully to my right (I am a cautious driver with a previously unblemished driving record), and then pulling out as I did every night, usually after dark, at the same intersection about two miles from home. I saw headlights coming towards me, but I made the instant calculation that pressing hard on the accelerator would get me safely out of the way. It turns out I must have been mistaken. Those lights and that decision are the last thing I remember until I was lying in an ambulance and being asked to tell what happened. I didn’t know because I was mercifully spared the entire experience—the sounds of crash and sirens, the jolt and pain of impact, even the terror itself. After answering to the best of my ability all the questions put to me by paramedic and state trooper, I made my first telephone call: “I think I have been in an accident.”
That word itself has niggled at me for the two months since the traumatic experience my conscious mind was spared. More than two decades ago, I noticed with a start that the guy in the helicopter reporting “Traffic on the 8s” was suddenly referring to crashes rather than accidents on the Raleigh Beltline. Always attuned to the nuances of language, I wondered briefly about the motive for the change. Were the powers that be at WPTF radio suggesting, I wondered, that some of these incidents were intentional? Surely, I reasoned, those good ol’ boys weren’t indulging in the philosophical debate characterized by the idea that “there are no accidents”! That was about as far as my speculation went. However, just now I Googled “car accidents news,” and all but one of the first six hits used the now preferred word, crash: “Find the Latest Car Crash Stories,” “Car crash news & latest pictures,” “Crash Coverage,” and “Crash Reports” among them. The single exception, a story linked as “Stories about Car Accident—CBS News,” began, “Hundreds of automated vehicle crashes . . . ”
Etymology, philosophy, and religion
Despite the enigmatic media trend, though, my interest here is not in semantics, but in the very idea of accident. So, as I often do when in a muddle about words, I turned to Etymology Online to find out where we got the word in the first place. I was not surprised by the result:
Late 14c., “an occurrence, incident, event; what comes by chance,” from Old French accident (12c.), from Latin accidentem (nominative accidens) “an occurrence; chance; misfortune.” [If, like me, you are a sucker for things linguistic, I recommend the entire entry: accident.]
I am interested specifically in the nuances relating to chance and misfortune, aspects I was expecting when I looked up the word. Nor would I be writing this post if the result were otherwise, for the element of happenstance has been very much on my mind over the last two months. Once again turning to an Internet search, I learned that in February of this year, Jessie Singer published a book entitled There Are No Accidents—one of the titles I considered for this very post. But Singer’s subtitle, The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster—Who Profits and Who Pays the Price, reveals a political agenda that leads me nowhere.
My starting point in this meditation was indeed another iteration of the idea that there are no accidents, but I was searching not for villains to blame, but for a rebuttal to the oft-expressed idea that “everything happens for a reason.” I have long been impatient with that too-easy tendency to explain away every evil that befalls us as simply part of God’s plan. Nor am I alone in my dissatisfaction; debates about the issue, beyond my scope here—and, frankly, beyond my ken—have existed since at least classical antiquity. In case you’re interested, Wikipedia has excellent summaries of the philosophical issues involved under theodicy and problem of evil.
My own discomfort with the (mostly) fundamentalist Christians who attribute everything to God’s will has two distinct sources: the implied abdication of responsibility for one’s own actions, as well as the suggestion that God not only allows the existence of evil, but created it. I have settled the debate in my own admittedly limited mind by accepting the fall of Adam in Paradise Lost as felix culpa (fortunate fault):
O goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Then than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of Darkness! (Book 12.469-73)
Light out of Darkness
Despite my rambling, I do have a point to make here. My understanding of what happened to me at the intersection of Raeford and Johnson Mill Roads almost two months ago is now such that I am hesitant to call it an accident because even if it did happen by chance (or carelessness), that’s not the element that has now enveloped my consciousness. Nor am I am ready to believe that an inscrutable God willed this crash on me; the fact that He saved me from even knowing about it except empirically suggests otherwise. What I am ready to acknowledge—proclaim—is that what happened in the Darkness on October 28 has been transformed to Light because I have been willing to let God’s hand use the experience for my good—and in turn, I hope, for the good of others.
I am drawn to the engraving below from a 1695 edition of Paradise Lost (artist unknown) as a fuller expression of my theme of the “fortunate fall”; those beneficent angels overseeing the expulsion from the garden pair perfectly with Milton’s immortal closing lines:
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. (Book 12.641-49)
My recent experiences and meditations have made me keenly—urgently—aware of the fragility of our fleeting moments here on Earth. In Ancient Rome, a general marching in glorious procession was followed closely by a slave whispering in his ear, “Memento mori” (remember you are mortal). This meditation was a central focus of the discipline of the Stoics; Seneca, for example, wrote, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. . . . The one who puts the finishing touches on his life each day is never short of time” (Moral Letters to Lucilius). In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor 160-181 AD and the most powerful man of his time, reminded himself to live virtuously every moment: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Christianity has also produced its share of meditations on mortality. Although the Black Death obviated the need for other reminders, the Late Middle Ages introduced a genre known as Danse Macabre/Totentanz/Dance of Death, focusing on death as the great equalizer. The the early Renaissance continued the theme of memento mori:
The funerary art of the 1600s in New England also reminded our Puritan forbears always to remember death:
From medieval times onward, the Christian focus of this genre has been on vanitas—a reminder of the vanity of life on Earth, the meaninglessness of human striving, and the worthlessness of worldly goods and pleasures.
My own memento mori consist of a few piece of broken glass, scraps of two earrings wrenched from my earlobes by the EMTs who removed me from my car, and a book (perhaps not coincidentally, The Daily Stoic), stained with instant coffee and broken eggs, removed from that car after the events of October 28. But my own focus on the fragility of life has taken a slightly different form from that of the Stoics—and a VERY different form from the Puritans’ insistent focus on heavenly reward as the only raison d’être.
Notably, my recent experiences have given me a keen awareness of the importance of feeling and expressing gratitude, reminding me that all the events of my life—the good and the bad, the accidents and the crashes, the circumstances ruled by will and those left to chance—are occasions for thanksgiving. Every morning I awaken with gratitude on my lips; in words suggested to me by a dear friend and moral guide, I pray, “Thank you for all that I have and all that I don’t have.” And I have slowly realized what a profound idea is included in those few words—because part of what we have is not so desirable, and part of what we don’t have is just what we think we want or need. And yet we must be grateful for it all. Now more than ever, I realize deep in my heart that all those disparate circumstances are reasons for gratitude because they have brought us to today and made us who who we are—both of which are gifts of grace.
In the hopes that these lines resonate with everyone who has accompanied me this far, I will close with Shakespeare (Twelfth Night 3.3.1503-04):
I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks; and ever thanks.