A few days ago, I was driving from an appointment in Olympia, Washington, to the airport in Seattle to fly home. It was around 5 o’clock in the evening, but the traffic was surprisingly moving forward fluidly. Just after I passed the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, I was on an open stretch of freeway. The next car in front of me was quite some distance away, maybe twenty car lengths.
What happened next is not completely clear. Although I don’t remember it, I must have glanced down to look at the map—but for no more than a second or two. When I looked up again, there was a car right in front of me: maybe six feet away. I was still driving at 65 mph, but the car in front of me was going much slower. They had moved into my lane from the lane to my right, and then slowed very suddenly.
The whole thing happened in slow motion: I slammed into the back of the car with the full force of a vehicle driving at freeway speed. After that there were a few moments of blackout, where I have no memory at all. And next thing I know, my car was on the center divide of the freeway. I managed to open the door and get out. Blood was dribbling down my face. I looked at the front of the car I had been driving, which was completely pushed in (all the way up to where I was sitting). The other car was not so badly damaged, and the occupants seemed just fine. Of course, adrenaline was pumping through my body so furiously that I was convinced that everything was completely okay, despite the fact that I could hardly walk.
Because of the remote location, it took about twenty minutes for the flashing red lights to arrive. But when they did, they came in full force: fire engines, ambulances, police cars. They sent enough personnel for ten accidents, and everyone was extremely kind. They helped me into an ambulance and took me to a hospital in Lakewood where I was attended to by a band of angels.
If you had been driving along the freeway and glanced over to see the car that I had been driving, you would immediately assume that the driver had died. It had the look of a car with no survivors. Yet here I am a few days later, with seven stitches in my eyebrow (I have still got no idea what I hit my head on, as I was wearing a seat belt) and some trauma to the neck and upper back, which my chiropractor feels confident will be resolved very soon. It feels like a miracle, like my life is no longer my own. Logically I should have died that day… but I didn’t. So now it is time to really get with the program, to use every moment with intelligence and intention. Ever since the collision, I feel bathed in gratitude: I am grateful that I didn’t die, grateful for my beautiful wife, grateful for my wonderful children. I am grateful that the people in the other car were not hurt, grateful that my insurance covered everything, grateful that I am still able to give my gifts to the world, grateful for my friends, grateful for all of it.
Of course, I am fully aware that there are lessons to be thoroughly digested here. I ran into the back of another car: that could only happen if I was momentarily distracted. Will I be far more careful in the future about glancing down while driving? Of course I will. Will I keep both hands on the steering wheel for the rest of my life whenever I am driving? Of course I will. Will I keep my eyes glued to the road in front of me and drive even more defensively? Of course I will. Do I have a much deeper understanding now that a moving vehicle is a potentially lethal instrument? Of course I do.
The effect of that kind of collision on your body rams lessons and messages home to the core of you, like a sledge hammer driving home a tent pole. But I have also noticed that this accident has thoroughly kick-started the blame game. In a collision like this, the law requires us to identify a perpetrator and a victim. Somebody is “at fault,” which means that the other party is “blameless.” Generally speaking, whoever is driving the car behind is at fault, which by that reasoning makes the other party the victim. Of course I am willing to go along with that legal view: I will pay the fine, and I understand that the insurance settlement will be made by my company and not theirs.
But I also got to reflect on how narrow-minded the blame-victim mentality is, and how much it dominates our thinking. The other car changed lanes right in front of me. Is that a reasonable thing to do? Of course. Any blame? No. You can change lanes whenever you want. After changing lanes, the car in front of me had to suddenly slow because the rest of the traffic had. Was this a mistake? Of course not. They had to do that. I was driving on the freeway with plenty of space in front of me and glanced down to the map. With twenty car lengths in front of you, is that an okay thing to do? Would most people do that? I would say so. It was an accident, which means that we are all good people doing the best we can. But sometimes we end up together entangled in regrettable situations where someone gets hurt (but hopefully not too seriously).
In our family life at home, we pay great attention to relaxing the blame game. If the food gets burned, or someone forgets to take out the garbage, or someone leaves a hammer on a ladder and it falls off, or a bill doesn’t get paid on time, I notice there is always that knee-jerk response, in all of us, to point a finger at somebody and say “it’s YOUR fault.” And what does that do? It puts the now “guilty” party into a state of shame, contraction, and withdrawal. None of those are generally good conditions for learning. It puts the blaming party in the position of “victim” and the “you did it to me” mentality. This is a place of weakness and disempowerment, and therefore not a good environment for learning either.
So we remind each other constantly to drop the blame game, and to remember that sh*t happens to all of us, to remember that we are all good people doing our best, and we are all learning.
Imagine with me for a moment what our national and global conversations would look like if we could learn to drop the blame game. How would this election cycle look if our intrepid political leaders relaxed the need to demonize each other and call each other names, and instead simply focused on the gifts they each have to give? We might end up with coalition governments like they often have in Europe, which work very well.
You can call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world can live as…