Recently, I was driving to visit a friend at her horse farm. Traffic was light on the two lane, secondary road and my mind was wandering ahead with concerns about being late. Suddenly the car in front of me veered into the opposite lane. The first car of oncoming traffic narrowly missed a collision, but the panel truck behind struck the car head on. The car bounced back into my lane and came to a stop about 20 feet in front of me. I instinctively braked and pulled onto the shoulder. All of this unfolded in slow motion. It felt like time stood still.
I felt scared and overwhelmed. I thought “I don’t have skills to be helpful in a situation like this”…I also felt very torn and had a sense of ‘should’ and ‘obligation’ to do something. Then I saw many cars had stopped and a number of men were running toward her car. I decided to drive on.
As I drove off slowly, my car came almost parallel to the car that had crashed. I observed the driver’s arm and head slumped out the driver’s window. It was a woman. She had long curly red hair. She looked very young. I couldn’t imagine she could still be alive. Such a close encounter with death, so sudden and with someone so young, was disorienting and deeply unsettling. I felt shaken to the core. How can someone be here one minute and gone the next?
I wanted to get away, yet I stopped about 500 feet down the road, feeling that nagging thought, “I should go back and tell them what I saw”. But I didn’t. I told myself…”they don’t need me… I’m going to be late”. I continued on, feeling a nagging sense of guilt.
I also found myself detaching with a subtle sense that the person was doing something wrong and deserved it. “She was probably texting. There is a reason for this. It could have been avoided.” Later I realized I was rationalizing that this couldn’t happen to me. I was finding things that I wouldn’t be doing while driving which somehow made me feel safer, separate, and not so vulnerable.
By the time I arrived at my friend’s farm (see an earlier blog , “Building Trust, Turning Toward the Difficult”), I was pretty disconnected from my body and the feelings I was having.
Fortunately, the experience at the farm helped me to reconnect with what was happening for me in my body. My ability to be present and value what was arising in body sensations and feelings, i.e. fear and overwhelm, allowed me to value deeper needs although I was not clearly able to articulate them in the moment.
Equally fortunate, that evening I spoke with two good friends who are fellow mindfulness practitioners. They listened as I spoke about my experience that day and reflected back to me what they heard. They reminded me that it is human to blame others when we are confronted with the natural grief over the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition.
I am grateful for the ‘fruit’ of my mindfulness practice over the years which ‘showed up’ for me in the midst of such an unsettling and disturbing experience. Because of my practice I was able to watch and observe the thoughts as they arose without necessarily believing they were true or getting caught in them. This cultivated a willingness to turn toward what was happening, even though it was unpleasant, which allowed me (with the support of my friends) to respond to a larger sense of what was unfolding, rather than denying or repressing my experience.
Now, somewhat surprisingly, I’m feeling a sense of gratitude for this very real reminder of our shared fragility. I am reminded, once again, that there is no insurance policy that can protect us from this reality, mental or otherwise. I’m left feeling great compassion for the woman in the car (who survived without life-threatening injury) and myself and my fellow humans. I’m much more in touch with the preciousness of each moment of our shared journey…and with the desire to not get caught up in taking our precious, fragile lives for granted.