My daughters and I were recently in a car accident. The whole thing happened behind us so we aren’t sure of the details, but so far as we have been able to discover, a driver swerved to avoid someone who was driving erratically. As he swerved, his car hit ours. He went into a ditch, and we went into a spin in the middle of four lanes of high-speed traffic. The erratic driver never stopped or even slowed down.
Everyone involved in the accident is okay.
After I got home that night and got the kids calmed down, I poured myself a glass of wine and started to think about why the accident had been so scary. Part of it was, of course, that car accidents are scary things. Part of it was, of course, that my children were with me.
But I think the biggest part of it was that it wasn’t my fault.
I was driving along in perfect weather conditions, at the speed limit, obeying all the traffic laws, wearing my seat belt, not texting or talking on the phone, not distracted by the radio or a talking child. And then, out of nowhere, the car jolted and started to spin. I was in danger — all of us were in danger — and nothing I had done had caused it. And nothing I could do could stop it.
Nothing I had done had caused it. And nothing I could do could stop it.
We all want to be safe. As the political season heats up, politician after politician will try to persuade us that he or she is the best person with the best plans to protect us from all of the scary possibilities the world contains.
We’ve already been offered a wall along our southern border so that no illegal immigrants can enter the United States or commit crimes here; a $15 hourly minimum wage so that no one will ever have to be poor again; an increase in the war on drugs in order to decrease violence; a decrease in the war on drugs in order to decrease violence; more police and fewer police; more troops abroad and fewer troops abroad — all in order to make us safer. Cast your vote and take your pick.
As our kids head back to school, we will be offered antibullying programs designed to protect kids from each other, stranger danger programs designed to protect kids from grown-ups, and dress codes designed to protect kids from puberty.
And on our own, we will eat low-carb and high-fat diets, exercise at least 30 minutes a day, take multivitamins, eat kale, juice everything, pray, and avoid the sun. Just to be safe.
But as Forrest Gump reminded all of us, “It happens.”
It is impossible to be completely safe all of the time. Perhaps the girls and I would have been safer if we had stayed home that night. Or maybe we would have had a house fire. Perhaps we should have taken another route home. But maybe there was a worse accident on that other route.
Poets from Rupert Brooke to Jack Kerouac have known that the only real safety is to be “safe in heaven, dead.” And after my car accident, I can assure you with even more than my usual vigor that I have no interest in that kind of safety.
So we are left with an intractable and very human problem. How do we reconcile our desire for safety with our knowledge that the universe is, in fact, uncontrollable?
We do what we can to put a safety net below us. We buckle our seat belts and we pay our insurance bills on time. We make sure our cars have safe brakes and good tires, and we try not to think too hard about the potential dangers of driving.
We follow Benjamin Franklin’s advice (it is always a good idea to follow his advice) and do not give up our essential liberty — to drive, or to cross borders, or to work — in order to obtain a little temporary safety.
And now and again, we turn to the words of other humans who have found themselves equally precariously situated. For some of us, those words are, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
For some of us, those words are Frank Herbert’s Litany against Fear:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
We do our best to dance on the tightrope.
We aim for rational exuberance.
And sometimes we crash. And sometimes we don’t.