Social Responsibility

I was involved in a car accident last night on my commute home from work. The 9-11 operator and both insurance agents I spoke to will ask me about the weather at the precise moment when my car was struck by behind, and everything about how I understand the world—and my place in it—would change.  “Euphoric” was not the word I used, but it might have been the most accurate: for the first time in what feels like a long, dark winter, it was still light out. Nearly 50-degrees and the sky that pale blue before the dazzling sunset, I was headed home to my fiancé and his daughter who had just discovered our little Aracouna chicken had laid her first green egg.

Normally 50-minute drive, the gas light on my car illuminated when I had two exits left to make the decision to get gas in Carson City or brave the long stretch through Washoe Valley, up Galena (the Bermuda Triangle of my commute) to Reno where there isn’t really an easy one to access from the freeway.  Six of one to a half dozen: I chose to fill up in Carson since it was only Tuesday, and I would be driving to work the next morning and I would need to fill up anyway.

I took the first exit I saw and pulled behind the line of stopped cars. The song “Wish I Knew You” played via the bluetooth connection to my phone.  With my foot pressed on the brake, I think I might have taken a breath before a loud slam sent me forward in my seat, propelled into the car in front of me that ricocheted me back into my seat when everything finally stopped moving. I glanced in the rearview mirror expecting the apocalypse — a semi out of control, running over car after car. Instead, all I saw was a red Subaru SUV and a dazed, middle aged hispanic woman behind the wheel looking just as astonished as I was. 

Distraction— and disinterest— seems to be a feature of the life of 30-something woman who works an honest job and tries to squeeze exercise, bathing and sleep into something that resembles a life. It’s not easy, and I’m probably not alone when I say that there are more days when I come home feeling like a failure than ones when I feel as though my place in the world—and what I do— matters. 

I try to reason with myself that this is what all people have felt no matter when they were alive, but I’m still not convinced. I’m not sure my mom ever came home from work feeling as defeated and worthless as I do. But then again, my mom wasn’t a writer or struggling to be a competitive athlete— two endeavors that offer no guarantees of success and, more often than not, provide ample opportunities for a person to miss the mark, come up short and (even) totally fuck everything up. 

Case in point:  the accident which left me sitting on the side of the road for two cold hours when the “euphoric” sunset turned dark and I turned my idling engine off because I was already low on gas when I decided to turn off the highway two hours before, and it was cold and—did I mention I sat there for two hours?— I had also decided to stop because I really had to pee. 

The flashing hazard lights of our three cars illuminated the dark shoulder as other motorists honked, flipped us off and sped by on the way to their lives while us three just sat there. 

Last night, three lives collided on a highway off-ramp in Nevada’s capital on the first nice day of the year. One: a young man in his late twenties or early thirties wearing a Patagonia puffy-jacket named Isaac. He will be the first to pull into the shoulder and to emerge from his vehicle. “Shit, this is a rental car,” he will say, gesturing to the black Ford Escape I was thrown into. “I had to rent a car because this happened to me yesterday.” His girlfriend, a pretty blonde who looked to be 25-years old at the most, will nod and say nothing to me. 

I gesture to the red Subaru behind me. I’m afraid to look at what the back of my car looks like. I do, anyway. The woman in the car doesn’t get out, even when I examine the accordioned remains of my bumper, the smashed hatch. I try not to think about the fact that this is the only vehicle I’ve ever been able to buy with a job with a title that proclaims “writer!” and that I’ve named. I tried to be responsible, tried to get regular oil changes— I’ve tried not to fail being a responsible adult— with this car. I glance at the woman in the Subaru, and I’m not sure who I see. 

She does, at some point, emerge. She says nothing to me. She avoids looking at me or speaking to me, and locks herself in her car when I call 9-11. She, however, does not drive away. She answers the officer’s questions, when they arrive. She is the last of us to leave.  At some point during the two-hour wait on the side of the road, I glance into the rearview mirror and see flashes of her holding her face in her hands, as if she is crying. I can’t help but notice that the hazard lights on my car—somehow synchronized with the whirling red and blue lights from the police vehicle— are the method by which I see her face.

The police officer and the representative from my insurance company will want me to go to the Emergency Room in an ambiance. My neck and chest throb with a deep pain and somehow the ribs I broke three years ago— from being hit by a car while riding my bike—also hurt. I don’t take their offers because I can walk, breathe and pee and that sort of chauffeur service is expensive. 

So, I sit in my car for two and a half hours Tuesday night.  Which is, oddly, like sitting in my home office for eight hours Wednesday morning and afternoon while waiting for calls from my insurance company, a new medical adjuster, the vehicle assessor, the urgent care facility that handles car accident-medical claims, etc, etc, etc. It is a 24-hour period of waiting in the messy system of humanity, and I think, I at some point, about responsibility, about what our lives mean not only to ourselves, but to other people.

No matter how much we feel as though we are “alone” in this thing called life, we’re not. We are responsible for each other. Our family, yes. But, this responsibility extends beyond that. I am responsible for the people I work with. I’m responsible for the people I commute with, that I ride the bike with, that I race with, that I go to the grocery store with, that read my updates on social media, or that read my blog.

Sometimes the illusion that you “don’t matter” is attractive because 1) you’re depressed and you like to feel sorry for yourself and want to throw a massive pity-party, or 2) you don’t want to realize how much you do matter in the world. The truth, however, is that you DO MATTER

I don’t know the life story of the woman who hit me. I believe she regretted what happened. I can guess that she wasn’t “paying attention,” But, was she on the phone with one of her kids? Did she receive an email from work? Was she just fired? Did her husband text her that he was looking forward to her coming home? Was she promoted? Did she look at her phone to put on a song that matched that euphoric light that we’ve missed for so long and took her eyes of the road for a second?

I can’t know the answer to those questions. I only know— and want to say— that we ALL MATTER. We all have a responsibility for each other. We all have a role to play.  We are all so important, and we are all each other’s keepers. 

I wonder what would happen if we all thought about the world that way: the most important thing is not your facebook post or your promotion at work. What if the most important thing is that you and several others have lives that don’t violently collide?

Let's start with keeping each other safe.