I don’t know what it is that draws my attention to stories like this, but I find them almost irresistible. A few months ago while sitting in a local pizza parlor waiting for Friday night take-out, I found my attention lured to the TV screen by the promise of breaking news: a cyclist had been killed by a hit-and-run driver in nearby Wellesley.
I suppose you could call it morbid curiosity: the same urge that impels us to turn and stare as we pass a roadside wreck, or to peer under our brows, secretly, at a person with an odd injury or deformity. It could be that we derive perverse delight in the hardship of others, but I don’t think that’s it entirely, or even mostly. Isn’t our curiosity merely masked horror and even shared compassion, a sense of awed amazement that something that could have easily happened to us has happened instead to another?
“There but for the grace of God go I.” As I sat in that pizza parlor several months ago, a man sat with his two sons at the next table. “Cyclist killed in Wellesley,” the man repeated, drawn as irresistibly to the story as I was. The man at the next table appeared to be in his 40s—my age—and his sons were leggy adolescents: old enough to have bikes of their own, and old enough to be allowed to ride them alone. Wellesley is right next door to Newton, so it’s merely a matter of chance that a reckless driver was there rather than here. On any given Friday afternoon, what’s to protect you or me, the man at the next table, or any of our kids from being the next to fall?
Stories of random violence—death in the afternoon—never fail to grab my attention. They’re like a loud, shrill alarm reminding us of our eventual mortality: the one thing we all, universally, share. The television coverage showed a mangled bicycle on the side of an otherwise innocuous-looking suburban street, a castoff bike helmet and a small pool of blood giving silent testimony. What happened here, and to whom? The cyclist himself had been taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead, leaving only his mangled bicycle behind. Looking at the bicycle, I could see no clues as to the cyclist’s gender, age, interests, or occupation: simply a bicycle whose frame was twisted into a heap of nearly unrecognizable wreckage. Who was this man? Where was he going, and who would be missing him?
Maybe some people can see such coverage and move on, flipping to another channel or surfing to another story. For me, however, such stories pique my imagination. Who was this man? Was he cycling for exercise, racking up miles toward a personal fitness goal, or was he traveling somewhere? Was he biking home from work on a pleasant Friday afternoon, looking forward to a leisurely weekend? Was he out running errands? Was his bike basket (if he had one) filled with library books, groceries, or a gift he was delivering to a friend? What was he wearing, and did he have any idea when he dressed in the morning that he was choosing his last outfit: the clothes a loved one would later identify him in?
How arrogant we are, and how gullible, to believe our lives are guaranteed. You, right now: where are you going, and what are you doing? What would you think—how would you respond—if this turned out to be your last day on earth: would you want to die typing at a keyboard, tapping on your phone, or fiddling with the buttons in your car, turning the volume up or down, adjusting the soundtrack of your own demise?
As mortal beings, we don’t typically get to choose how and when we die. Some of us die slowly, the victim of long, debilitating illness, but others of us get taken without warning: one afternoon, lured by nice weather, we decide to go cycling, and we never come home, victim of a so-called untimely death. If you knew that today was your last day on earth, what would you choose to do? Would you dare venture from your house, or would you hunker down, terrorized by the gods of chance and unpredictability?
I once remember hearing a story—an urban legend, perhaps—about a busy highway bridge that collapsed during a dark, moonless night. Several drivers drove off the bridge to their deaths, never knowing (as the saying goes) what hit them. One driver, however, saw the collapsed bridge, pulled over, and stood in the middle of the road, waving down approaching cars with a flashlight to warn them of the danger. One approaching car, however, refused to stop, the driver blaring his horn and swearing through an open window at the man on the bridge, too arrogant to inquire why he was trying to flag him down.
To what level of hell are you assigned if you curse the good Samaritan who tried to save you, an angry, aggressive gesture being your last act on earth?
Be ready; be prepared. We tell cyclists—we tell our children—we tell ourselves—to take precautions. Wear a helmet; apply reflective tape; install mirrors, reflectors, and lights on your bicycle. Look both ways before you cross the street, drive (or cycle) defensively, and watch out for opening car doors as you zip down a curbside bike lane.
Be careful, we tell cyclists, our children, and ourselves, but this dead cyclist was careful. He was wearing a helmet, the news report made a point of noting, but that helmet did no good. Judging from the level of damage done to his bike, there was no kind of protective gear the cyclist could have worn that would have protected him from being run down and mangled by a truck that never stopped, the remaining wreckage no longer looking like a bicycle.
Be careful—be ready—be prepared. This is what we tell cyclists, our children, and ourselves, as if being careful, ready, and prepared were adequate. What we don’t say when we venture out on the roads, whether on foot, by bike, or in our cars, is “Be prepared to die,” but perhaps that’s the only honest, realistic thing we can say. “Wear your helmet, be careful, look both ways…and know that none of this might be enough to help you.” Before you set out, say your goodbyes and get your affairs in order, because you never know when today’s bicycle ride might be your last.
We don’t say this because it’s hopelessly depressing, worse than morbid curiosity. We can understand rubbernecking someone else’s traffic accident; we can’t countenance, however, an accurate assessment of our own everyday risk. If we acknowledged how dangerous and haphazard our lives really are—if we acknowledged the complete lack of statistical surety we have when it comes to our own longevity—we’d never leave the house. The only way we can act boldly—the only way we can act at all—is through ignorance, arrogance, and blithe disregard. Ignorance is not only bliss, it is our only option, given the alternative.
Go ahead and tell yourself that this cyclist did something to merit his fate: go ahead and tell yourself that something similar won’t and even can’t happen to you. Go ahead and tell yourself that you are blessed, or that your guardian angel is protecting you; go ahead and touch a rabbit’s foot, cross yourself, or toss salt over one shoulder, right into the devil’s eye. Tell yourself any story you’d like, or turn up your iPod, drowning out the sound of death’s car approaching and even accelerating behind you, a predator stalking its prey. The moral here isn’t that you are more deserving to live than another who has died; the moral here is that you, for the time being, have been luckier, and we never know how long our luck will hold.
Some of us dare to claim that we understand the will of God. When something good happens, we declare ourselves blessed; when something bad happens, we say that God has a plan or that God is testing us. Aren’t these the same things Job’s comforters said? When a train derails and all the passengers except a single infant are killed, we thank God for saving that infant. Does that mean we should credit God for the pile of dead bodies as well, it being God’s plan to kill many but spare one?
I don’t pretend to know God’s plan, and that seems to be the ultimate lesson of Job. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the universe? Where were we before God himself was? Job shakes his fist at the heavens and asks God why, why, why, and God responds with the ultimate non sequitur: because I am. Who are you, God asks Job, to understand my ways? It’s a question with no satisfactory response other than trembling awe and terror.
It’s easy to grow complacent by assuming that tomorrow will follow today. But what guarantee do we have of our next minute, much less the next? Job dared ask God to explain his ways, and Job was fortunate that God didn’t smite him in response: for all the travails he endured, Job was still a lucky, nervy man, for God ultimately showed him mercy. Seeing how the people around you drop and die, why do you think you will be spared? Do you consider your life to be more precious, or your contributions more indispensable? Countless generations before you have flowered, ripened, and then fallen, and the graveyard is full (as the saying goes) of indispensable men. Why do you think you and your generation will be spared?
I took the photos illustrating today’s post on an early evening walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery in July, long before the leaves started to turn. The bicycle accident that inspired this post happened on August 24th; the victim was identified as 41-year-old Alexander Motsenigos. The case is still under investigation.