The funny thing about life is its randomness. Funny, because we almost never notice it. We think we have a pretty good handle on what our decisions do for us, what they may accomplish for us. We express frustration when our goals are unaccomplished, disappointment when planned efforts that seemingly should have succeeded, fail miserably instead. These responses, rather than expressing acknowledgement of the element of chance in our lives, indicates that how dedicated we are to the notion that our lives follow an orderly progression of events, and that if we just learn to ‘play the game,’ we should be well on our way to earning some reward for that. It’s an idea taught to us by our parents; our educational systems are actually founded on the notion. (What would it mean for a teacher to stand before a class and say, ‘kids, try just as hard as you may, but I’ll decide your grades with a flip of a coin. Oh, by the way, a third of you will die young, poor and miserably lonely. Have a nice day!’ Yet there would certainly be an amount of truth to it….)
So our frustration and appointment arise from the sense that life hasn’t played fair with us. Unfortunately, life just doesn’t play fair. In fact it doesn’t play at all. It really just bounces us around like drivers in electric bumper cars at an amusement park. Bang goes the other car into yours and you find yourself spinning uncontrollably into the protective rail….
We seem to exercise greater control over real cars – fortunately, since there are greater risks involved – even with all our modern, insurance-premium-reducing safety devices – that sometimes seem not to work all that well, admittedly. That’s typical of life – even when we stack the decks, it finds some way to cheat.
Let’s admit it: Getting behind the wheel of one’s car, or agreeing to ride in a car when someone else is driving, these are at-risk decisions from the get-go. I will consider this in terms of the two auto accidents I’ve had as a driver.
The first occurred in the fall of 1992. It was about 6 am, I was on my way to work along a road in Brighton. The weather was good, the lighting was fair. The speed limit was 35mph and I was maintaining that speed. There were no cars ahead of me or behind me. I approached a T-intersection. A car pulled a right-turn into my road from the intersection; he was cutting it a little close, but made the turn in good order. I braked my car slightly to accommodate him. Then, for reasons best known to himself, rather than achieve speed limit for the road we were on – he cut his speed in half, to (estimate) less than 20mph. (I have always assumed that he had not looked up the road to see me approached and had something on his mind other than his driving). I was suddenly about to crawl up his back end. I braked and swung off the road. Unfortunately, the lawn onto which I turned had a nice big boulder for a decoration, which I struck head on. Fortunately the Grand-Am I was driving had a remarkably strong chassis, and I was unhurt. The car was totaled.
The second accident occurred in 2009. This time I was leaving work for home, it was a Sunday. I had to drive across Lake Avenue; the light was yellow. I looked to my left and saw a car approaching, but assumed it would slow down for the red light it was approaching, so I continued on, keeping my eye on a child walking along the sidewalk near the intersection. The next thing I knew I was waking up in a crumpled wreck of a car on the other side of the street. The car coming down Lake Ave. hadn’t slowed down but had smacked my rear end at a speed above the 35 mile speed limit. Again, fortunately, I was unharmed. Again, my car was totaled.
Have I learned lessons from these accidents? Oh, yes. I watch other drivers more carefully; I no longer trust their powers to make rational decisions. From the first accident, I learned to let people turning in ahead of me to have their own way, to slow down to accommodate them; from the second I learned to stop at yellow lights and to keep my eyes on drivers at intersections more carefully.
But what interests me about both accidents – I trusted other drivers to follow the rules as carefully as I was, and they didn’t; I trusted other drivers to drive ‘defensively’ in the sense of making decisions to avoid possible collision, and they didn’t. I won’t say I am always an excellent driver – but I hope that I have – at least usually – made decisions compliant with the rules and with the awareness that others share the road. But the fact remains that the others sharing the road aren’t always using the same guidelines. And the fact remains that neither of these accidents were predictable. Every second behind the wheel carries with it a risk.
One night in 2010 I was driving to work along an expressway, approaching an underpass. Suddenly, lights flashed over head and I heard a whirling noise whistle by, and a moment later a car slammed into the safety barrier I had just passed – it had flown off the bridge above at considerable speed, spinning in air before its crash. I could see in the mirror that the driver – head and arm hanging out the window at sharp angles – had not made it. I also realized that, everything else remaining the same, had I left home 1 second later than I did, that car would have slammed into mine and I would probably have been killed.
What could I learn from this? It wasn’t even a matter of trusting other drivers. This poor fellow hadn’t been on the same road as I. It wasn’t about driving skills or rules. It certainly was about probability, but not any that I could have known before hand.
Every day is routine for most of us. Even those who live or work in extremely hazardous situations, such as soldiers or mine workers, submarine explorers, researchers at the South Pole – generally routinize their behavior in order to get their work accomplished and go on with their lives. It is in the nature of the animal that it prefers predictable ruts to constant uncertainty.
But the fact remains that the uncertainty is in the nature of life itself. It calls you forth on a whim into birth, then when it’s had as much amusement as it can get from you, throws you back into the darkness from whence you came.
Some say this is too much to bear, and we have developed elaborate myths and beautiful poetry, and fine rhetoric to persuade ourselves that this isn’t so. And many need those myths and that poetry to sustain themselves through hard times. In many ways our societies are grounded in these fictions.
But it only takes a moment for an unexpected event to rip through all these myths and reveal the frailty, the tenuous nature, the brevity of our living. Einstein once said, “god does not play dice with the universe.” Another good reason not to believe in god; because life is but a game of chance. The object is not to win, but to play it well.
Still tryin’ to get her belt loose
All the way home I held a grudge
For the safety belt that wouldn’t budge
Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go