Monday, 22 August 2011

Crashes, Beaches, and Bystanders

What is it about tragedy that is so intriguing that it catches our attention and leaves us dying to know the details?  We rubber-neck for a reason, right?

I drove past a car crash on my way into town this morning.  I did my absolute best to get as much as I could out of viewing it out of the corner of my eye while driving past it pretending to be attentively watching the road directly ahead of me.  Unfortunately, I wasn't able to pick up very much.  (I make a poor spy but an excellent ignorant bystander.)  However, this much I did catch: there were three people sitting by the side of the vehicles; there was a trailer, and a sedan; no vehicles were totaled - just tipped over.

As I made my way past, I thought about why I or anyone else would want to view it.  I thought about the people involved and how they must be feeling.  I thought about the hassle that it is to deal with insurance companies.  I thought about my own personal experience in dealing with my auto insurance company, and it was this train of thought that led me to recall my first auto collision.

I thought about how I felt when everyone passed by me when I was in distress.  I thought about how a handful of people came to my aid, and how dozens more just walked on by.  I thought about how it was rush hour, and how the streets were packed.  I thought about how the teenager who hit me called all of his friends to show up and pretend they were witnesses.  I smiled when I thought about how I shrugged it off at the time.  I smiled again when I thought about all of the people who waited by my side and helped me.  And then, peculiarly, my mind drifted right back to the people who didn't react and continued to walk on by.

The week following that collision, I went to the beach.  My sister and my best friend convinced me to take a day and just go relax.  On the drive out, my sister mentioned that there had been a number of drownings at that beach that summer, and that it was imperative that we be careful.  I remember scoffing as I said aloud, "With so many people around, it would truly be a tragedy if someone drowned."  So, when I got caught in the undertow of three, large, consecutive waves, it was these words that came to mind.  With every available breath, I screamed "help" as loud as I physically could.  It wasn't immediate, but it came.  I lived.  And here I am.

I do find it a tragedy when people don't get the help they need when there are so many people around, available, and who would be willing to provide it.  But then I think about car crashes that hold up traffic.  I think about how rubber-necking is discouraged because it further holds up traffic.  I think about myself, and how curious I am to know what happened, and then I ask myself "Why?"  Why do I need to know?

I like to think it's because I empathize, and that it's not out of some crazy compulsion to be entertained at someone else' expense.  I think that I need to know because I wonder if it could very well have been me.  What's the difference between me and the person who was in the car crash just ahead of me?  The answer: perhaps nothing.  Perhaps it was just timing.  Perhaps it was just some particular combination of the myriad of seemingly insignificant other factors that altogether amounted to my safety, and to someone else' demise.  Perhaps.

And similarly, perhaps not.  Perhaps I have nothing in common with the person ahead of me.  Perhaps there were unmitigated circumstances to which that person was exclusively subject, and of which I neither may nor am able to ever be aware.  It's hard to gauge.  In any situation, I'm sure, we have some inclination as to which it is, but in the end, it's just a guess.

So, I sit and I wonder.  I rubber-neck and feign disinterest.  I help or at least ensure someone else has.  I ask for help when I need it, and give it when I can.  These are the things that I do.

What about you?
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