Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Pivotal Moment...

I almost got into a bad car accident a couple of months ago. I was driving home to Philadelphia from visiting my hometown in New York. I was on I-476 S, so I only had a half-hour left of my trip. I saw the car ahead of me swerve; he lost control and went into the highway divider on the left. The force with which he hit it spun him around and he ended up going back across the highway. I’d slammed on my brakes and I ended up stopping right in front of the car. Luckily no one was right behind me or I probably would have gotten rear-ended.

For a second or two afterwards I thought something along the lines of, “Holy shit! I’m okay.” Then I thought I should get out and see if the driver was okay, but there would soon be a line of cars in back of me and there was space enough on the shoulder to get past the accident so I told myself it was safer to get a ways up the highway so my car wasn’t in the way when the tow-truck and police cars arrived. They didn’t need another car right there blocking traffic, especially when it wasn’t even damaged. But when I got past the accident I realized an entrance ramp was just up ahead so I couldn’t leave my car on an entrance ramp and by the time I got past that the accident seemed so far back. How would I get back over there? I’d have to walk down the highway. Fear had entered in and so I just keep driving, but it was an experience that was impossible to forget.

Why didn’t I get over into the left lane right past the accident, stop the car, and put on my hazards? No one would have been able to drive past the accident on that side. I might have been the first one to stop. I have no way of knowing what kind of injuries the driver suffered. I could have helped him or her. Maybe there were others in the car. I’m no physician, but I could have done something. I’m sure someone else stopped, but I can’t shake the feeling that I let fear cause me to put up a “Someone Else’s Problem field” and I just drove away.

There’s a song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones whose lyrics I’ve always liked: “I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested. I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.” I can’t help but feel like that accident was a test and I can’t help but feel like I failed the test.

You’d think I would have passed. I grew up on comicbooks and read about daring heroes in each issue. One of the best-known comic stories in Spider-man’s origin from Amazing Fantasy 15. When Peter Parker first receives his spider powers he uses them for personal gain. He becomes a wrestler and an entertainer. One night he lets a robber get into an elevator and escape the police when he could have easily stopped him. “Not my problem,” he tells the police officer. But, it was his problem because the following night that same robber hits his Aunt and Uncle’s house and his Uncle Ben is shot and killed when he confronts the robber. This event would forever haunt Spider-man and causes him to devote his life to crime fighting.

I can’t help but feel like that accident was my pivotal moment and like Spider-man I just let it go by without acting and like Spider-man I’ll always regret it. However, this is reality and I’m not superhero, but this experience has begun to shape my character a little bit. I find myself compelled to help people anyway I can as if a lifetime of helping friends move or walking the neighbor’s dog while they’re away will somehow make up for my past shortcomings

But this certainly isn’t penance; I don’t have the true superhero complex. I don’t believe I did an unforgivable thing, which must be made up for through a lifetime devotion to selflessness and suffering. No, I just want to be a better person, I want to be a blessing to those around me and I don’t want to be a victim of my fears.


  1. Great post, John! This kind of thing has struck me, too.

    I just don't think quickly in situations like that. And I'm always far more concerned about not doing something wrong than I am about actually doing something.

    I'm afraid I am a coward. Oh, if I had time to think about it, I'm sure I'd do the right thing. But that's not how it works. You don't have time to think about these things. Your immediate reaction is what matters.

    And I tend to dither along, delaying, wondering what I should do. As I say, I'm far too worried about making a mistake. And then you get down the road, or you let other people respond (whatever the situation might be), and you realize what you should have done.

    Well, most of this is purely hypothetical. You haven't done an unforgivable thing, and neither have I. But it gives me a real appreciation for people who act - and act decisively - in a crisis. We praise heroes for a reason, don't we?

    I don't think that's ever going to be me, and I really wish otherwise. (Maybe I do have a superhero complex, huh?)

  2. I often wish I could be as capable or decisive in person as I can be on paper when I can do research and take a day or two to write a single scene.

    I'd also possibly win more arguments.

    But like you said that's just not the way it is when you have only a split second and people that do keep their cool and act decisively really do deserve our praise.

    Thanks for responding Bill, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one that goes through this. I was a little worried to post this one, I still feel quite badly about it, but it also felt like something very real and I felt like I should share it, because people don't really talk about this sort of thing.