Fragility (meditations on a witnessed accident)

Humans are amazingly tough creatures.  With a rather fragile shell of a body, we can fight off diseases, overcome injury, endure hardship, and live through depravations and sometimes for over a century.  Psychologically we are resilient, able to withstand severe  pain and suffering and yet overcome.   As with physical injury psychological injury (such as post-traumatic stress syndrome) requires a lot of therapy and attention.   But humans are resilient.

Yet, there is a fragility there.    I was reminded of it Saturday morning, at the Wilton, Maine, Blueberry Days parade (it is a long parade — well over an hour!)  We were standing near the Italian restaurant, one of the better restaurants in the region, at the tail end of the parade.  At almost every big parade in Maine, the Shriners drive their little cars down the parade route, doing sharp turns and driving in well practiced patterns.  The kids love to watch it.

As they drove by on a stretch of Main street that was a tad narrow, I watched as a woman was walking away towards downtown.  I noted she was a bit too far in the street, but that’s normal — you gotta walk around the specators on the side walk.   I then saw one of the mini-car drivers do a patented quick turn.  They do it fast (to make the turn quickly) and zoom up the other side of the street.  I suddenly realized that the mixture of the woman walking in the road and the narrow street looked like disaster.   There wasn’t time to yell out a warning or even tell the others what was about to happen.  I watched as the little car plowed into the woman  knocking her down and I believe pinning her under the car (other people blocked my view of exactly  how she was injured.)

The driver’s face had a horrified look.  “God damn it,” he shouted angrily at himself, as if he had been worried about this sort of thing every time he drives in a parade on narrow streets.  I couldn’t see the woman, but recall the shocked and frightened look she had on her face as she went down.   For awhile, the driver and a few people close by were tending for her.   Soon some Wilton police came, followed about 15 minutes later by a golf cart able to carry the woman.  She had her leg in a splint, smiled at something said to her, apparently not hurt too badly.  The driver, who stayed around until the end, looked upset.   I suspect from how they all were acting, there wasn’t any anger — it was, after all, an accident.   They did exchange information — I saw that.   The friends of the victim did not seem angry either.  In all a minor event.

Yet as I replayed it in my mind, seeing the look on the woman’s face, and the shocked “God damn it!” from the man as he realized what happened, it brought home to me the fragility of human existence.  The parade was going fine, certainly you don’t expect to be injured by a car while walking down the parade route.   The driver had done this no doubt numerous times, and there were procedures to try to assure safety.  This came out of the blue, an unexpected sudden change in circumstances that takes only a second and life can be changed completely, or even lost.

This incident was so minor, it didn’t even make the Sunday Lewiston Sun Journal.     Yet seeing the impact and the expressions on both faces as it happened did affect me.   I felt tears in my eyes thinking about how he must have felt realizing what happened, and how her day — a fun parade no doubt to be followed by parties and fireworks at dusk (they do a good job with fireworks at the Wilton Blueberry festival) — suddenly turned into a day that would probably cause pain and changes in routine for months.

And, of course, neither saw it coming.  In hindsight she might say “I should have been watching the parade activity if I’m in the road,” and he might say “On narrow roads I should have been more careful.”  But hindsight does indeed have 2020 vision.  Most of life’s tragedies would have been prevented if only we’d had some kind of way to know at that instant what would be eminently clear later.

So we are tough creatures, able to withstand nature, physical and mental abuse, and the passage of time.   Yet we are fragile creatures.   I also think about the stories of murders — often family members or friends who in anger attack and kill someone else.   Such rage murders are also moments of fragility.   Here the emotion of anger blocks rational thought and consideration of the consequences of what is about to be done, and in a split second of rage a life is lost, and the perpetrator is almost certain to have his or her life forever changed — with considerable time in prison.   Often it’s an argument about money, or someone feels disrespected or cheated upon by the other.  Yet what can one do that is really worth loss of one life and a wasting of another?

We are psychologically resilient, but at the same time fragile.   The parent driven by a baby’s screams to two seconds of violent shaking — killing or permanently disabling a young human.   The driver so angry at another for cutting him off that he runs the other off the road — manuevers in traffic become some kind of attack on ones’ manhood.

So we face chance in nature, and in our underlying and often hard to control emotions, strong creatures but always with some fragility.   We’ve all been mad enough to just smack a friend or even a spouse.   But most all of us are able to realize that turning that anger into action would be wrong.  What is the line between being able to control that and being out of control?  We all probably have some breaking point.

I was thinking about this blog post today as I continued our project, now clearing out the woods of debris from the play house construction (we’re still staining it and doing final touches — and seeding the ‘new’ yard).   Being in nature, even if doing menial chores, sweating and working connects me with a sense that the world at any instant is as it should be.   The fragility of chance is nature; the fragility of emotion is simply our human instincts reacting to social situations our bodies did not evolve to deal with.  Yet we adapt, and those who really go over the edge, like those who suddenly find their lives dramatically changed by an unexpected moment, are tiny minorities.    Most of our tragedies and loses of control are minor.

Also, in the last 24 hours I ran into a lot people.  Normal in a small town, to be sure.   Two colleagues at the grocery store.    Then at the chiropractor’s a friend happened to be on the cot next to me as we got adjusted by different doctors.  Driving to work another friend passed me, I only noticed him at the last second, too late to wave.   Today I had a meeting with a former student, a wonderful woman now working for her MA at Orono in Peace Studies.  If  I hadn’t run into her when I was taking medicine to my son at school, we may never have reconnected (she last took a class with me in 1998).

Then it hit me: chance and our emotions lead to good as well as bad encounters.  Our emotions drive us to care for those who are hurt, and help friends in need.    Chance encounters and little coincidences often bring about great good.    So maybe we’re not so fragile after all, perhaps these things happen for a reason, to help us learn and grow in this life.    Perhaps there is a spiritual web connecting all the disparate quantum probabilities and actualizing those we somehow draw to ourselves.    And who knows just where they’ll take us!

  1. #1 by henitsirk on August 11, 2009 - 19:59

    I think chance, or karma, is all around us. But we’re not predestined by any means. And I’m tempted to believe that we can affect “reality” with our thoughts and emotions, possibly to the extent of drawing events and experiences to us. But then sometimes other people’s thoughts, emotions, and choices change our lives irrevocably.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 12, 2009 - 15:27

      I think our thinking is very similar, Henitsirk. I wonder, though, if there isn’t some kind of deeper agreement behind how other people’s thoughts and emotions change our lives. My six year old was asking about the death the other day, and I told him that no one knows for sure, but I figure we must stay existing, in another world. He was curious about reincarnation, why we come here, and all that. It was a very interesting conversation — though he was bugged by the ‘we can’t really know for sure’ part of it!

      • #3 by henitsirk on August 12, 2009 - 16:06

        Well, I guess then we have to decide what “know” means.

        I’m editing a book right now on why scientists or others committed to “rational” thinking can’t believe in God without degenerating into “magical” thinking. To me it’s just an overly narrow view of reality. Maybe mystical experiences are hallucinations or other brain malfunctions. Or maybe the malfunction is just a physical manifestation of a mystical experience!

        I think it’s limiting (and inhuman, to some degree) to deny anything spiritual just because it’s not perceptible through our sense or rational/scientific thinking. I’m willing to accept certain things on faith because they just make sense to me, like reincarnation. I believe in “as above, so below”, and so the idea that we are born many times is no more implausible than deciduous trees “coming back to life” in the spring every year.

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