And I probably should be dead. But that’s only the start of the story.
Every sixth Thursday I finish teaching my four classes at one school, pack a huge amount of gear in my car, and drive six hours to Boise to teach another class of 50 kids the following morning.
It’s worth it, but it’s not easy. Teaching at three schools is wearing and requires more energy than I sometimes want to admit that I have. I get fatigued, worn down, dulled, though I often refuse to admit it.
January in Idaho is cold and bleak. The sun goes down early. Driving on the freeway in midafternoon is boring and there is nothing — at all — to see in west-central Idaho.
I was tooling north at a fairly sedate 81, just over the 80-mph line on the speedometer. Technically speeding — the speed limit is 80. Not even close to the fastest thing on the road.
But faster than all the semi-trailers.
It was late afternoon, just before 5pm. The sun was very low, and the I-84 trends west-by-south, putting that sun on the front left quarter of my car. My windshield was clean on the outside, but very slightly smeared on the inside, like nearly everyone’s, making the sun streak a bit and coat the windshield with an orange glow. I had the visor down. Light prescription sunglasses on. Occasionally a hand up to block the sun where it peeked through the sparse clouds over the western mountains.
Traffic was moderate, for that road. I had slowed a couple of times to get into a line of faster-moving traffic passing the big trucks. The road itself was dry and clear — really perfect conditions for driving. Utterly unremarkable, in other words.
I had a podcast on the sound system, something about Edward the Black Prince of Wales, one of my subjects in the morning’s class. I was thinking hard about how that class would go — three hours with a class ranging in age from 10 to 17 is complex, and there is never enough time to prepare.
And I was very, very tired. All teachers are, truth be told, and I’m not special. I prepare two different hour-long history lessons every day, one for high school and one for junior high. I deliver those in person or in an in-person/online hybrid four times a week. I also teach college (ten more students) a completely different three-hour weekly class, and alternate Fridays my 50 kids in Idaho. All told, that’s 384 students.
No, that’s not a typo.
I teach at three different locations, plus two different online platforms, using three different learning management systems. Grading and scoring consumes at least 20 hours a week outside of class, to say nothing of prep time. I often go to bed well after midnight. As I say, I’m not special. Many, many teachers have harder schedules than I do. Most people outside the profession, and many thousands within it, have no clue how difficult and fatigue-inducing teaching is.
None of this is complaint, by the way. I could walk away if I wanted to. I choose to do this because I love it, and I (unlike most of my compadres) do not believe I am underpaid.
But yeah, I’m tired. All the time.
And I was tired that day, flying up the freeway toward Boise in the late January afternoon.
The podcast was boring. The road was boring. The drive is boring.
Sun shooting in low, at that gray, cold part of the almost-dusk where everything washes out and the horizon, the flat, featureless land — and the other vehicles — merge into a visual sludge without distinguishing features or points of interest.
I squinted, trying to see a bit better. I put my hand up to block the sun. I blinked, resting my eyes from fighting the glare.
The bang came out of nowhere, the right side of my hood crumpling up so fast it was like before-and-after photographs with no movement in between. Bits of car flew up and over my windshield. I couldn’t see what I had struck. The car pulled right, where the chassis was rubbing on my brand-new tire. I was on the shoulder, slowing. Ahead of me was a huge semi-trailer, also slowing but pulling away a few dozen yards, momentum carrying it away from me. The left edge of his rear crash bar was cocked forward and up at a strange angle.
I realized my car wasn’t running. The dash lights were still on. The miserable podcast was still telling me that Edward had been a bad prince in Aquitaine. It was quiet, after four hours listening to the the incessant rush of the wind. My equipment had shifted forward, tossed into odd crannies. I remember seeing my bag of grapes wedged between my overnight bag and the center console.
I wasn’t hurt. At all. My glasses hadn’t come off my face, even. No airbag deployed. I had no bruising where my seatbelt had held me in place.
At first, my reaction was shock and concern that the driver of the semi-trailer not be blamed for this. It was obvious what I’d done — I’d drifted out of lane while fighting the sun and hit him on the back edge instead of passing on the left. None of that was his fault at all.
He got out and came back to check on me. I realize now he was terrified. His vehicle wasn’t harmed in any meaningful way, and he was 90 feet away from the collision with several tons of metal between him and it. He probably felt very little of it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry. This is my fault.”
“I’m just glad you’re alive,” he said.
This conversation was repeated twelve or thirteen times, with different people playing the second part, in the following 24 hours. It took that long for me to understand what was immediately obvious to everyone else.
The police were very nice. Officer Donohue could hardly have been kinder, and when I broke down and sobbed while on the phone with my wife, she struggled to explain to me that I should be shouting for joy instead. She sees, no doubt, hundreds of these things a year, and this had to be on the end of the outcome spectrum as close to miraculous as one gets. Not that I could see it. All I knew was that my moment of distraction caused the destruction of a car I loved and would undoubtedly consume a good portion of my salary for some time to come.
I was a long way from home, and a long way from friends, and I had thousands of dollars of gear in a car that wouldn’t run — that had, in a flicker of a second, been turned into a large, complex, twisted paperweight.
The rest of the night was somewhat crazy and not terribly important to what I want to say, but I got to Boise and got to my gig the next day, where if I was not at my best I was at least not disappointing.
It was not, however, until the next morning that I realized what had actually happened, and why I should be supremely grateful to be alive.
Five feet farther forward, and I would have been under the wheels of the truck. I drive a convertible. I would likely have been dead.
Five feet farther backward, and I would have missed the crash bar and gone off the road. There’s a ditch there that would have swallowed me. At the speed I was going, I would not have survived.
It could have been a car that I struck. We would both have spun. No telling the end of that, either, except that it would not have been good.
In fact, the only chance of coming out of that incident able to walk away — and with no one else injured at all — was for it to happen exactly as it did. I hit a truck while doing 80, yes, but I did it while it was moving 65 or so itself, so that the impact crushed the front of my car but simultaneously killed off enough momentum that by the time I was aware of what happened, I was already going slower than he was. Net, I was only doing 15 or 20, with all the impact on the side of the car where no one was.
When I was a freshman in high school, my choir teacher, Mary Gay Craig, was killed in a collision with a pickup truck. More or less, what happened to her, happened to me. And I’m alive and she is not.
She was 52.
I am 52.
The truth of it is that I should be dead, not just from this, but other incidents of a potentially lethal nature over the years. It is, I suppose, theoretically possible that someone could be as lucky as I have been, but the truth is that I don’t believe it. I’m not especially lucky. I’m certainly not special in any other way. Yet, again, here I still am, typing on my computer back at my house almost exactly 48 hours after an accident that could have — and should have — killed me.
I am a man of faith. I believe in an activist God that takes a personal interest in our lives, and sometimes intervenes in the physical universe on our behalf. I do not believe He has any obligation to do so. I do not believe He loves me more than anyone else. A very wise ecclesiastical leader of my acquaintance once told me that God has no obligation to protect the stupid. I believe this. I also believe that I have been very, very stupid, and He has, nonetheless, protected me.
I don’t know why.
But I also think it would be extraordinarily arrogant and foolish of me to both believe in an activist God that likely shoved my car sideways at exactly the moment necessary to save both my life and the lives of those around me, and also believe that I have no obligation to Him for having done so. Yes, I believe I had it before. Still, this incident has thrown my obligation into starker focus. I am not my own man. If I was snatched from my death, it was for no purpose of my own. If God did, indeed save my life — and I believe He did — then it was for His purposes, and it would probably be best if I tried a little harder to figure out what those were.
Regardless, whether it was God or simply fate — or luck — today’s breathing in and out seems filled with more importance than it did only a couple days ago. Sleeping. Eating. Walking. Raising my arms above my head. Reading. Anything I do right now seems wondrous and strange, as if I have not really done those things before.
My son gave me The Tao of Pooh for Christmas, and as I was reading a chapter this morning I saw that much of what the author is trying to convey matches quite closely how I feel right now. I am more mindful of everything. Less inclined to care what I “should” be doing and more interested in listening for…well, for the voice of God. And, too, my own voice, to which I’ve listened less-than-attentively for a year or so. Just sitting and breathing seems like luxury.
All things have become new.
On that trip I also listened to a fantastic episode of the Daily Stoic podcast, in which the inimitable Donald Robertson read a chapter of his outstanding How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The chapter was on anger, and how useless and terrible a thing it is. I realized I had been angry just the day before. Now I could not remember why. It seemed so utterly silly that I should have let anything so mundane, so insignificant that a day later I couldn’t even remember it be the reason I raised my voice to my son. None of that mattered now.
But I also thought about the people that fired me a couple of years ago from a job I loved. I could feel no anger at them, either. Why waste that energy? Why allow a moment of that to obstruct the simple miracle of my heart pumping blood? There. And there. And there. Again and again. I can’t make it keep going. I have no power over it whatsoever. It is a gift. The majesty of that gift is so huge — what is lost keys or being cut off in traffic or money or a job or pretty much anything else — compared to that? I believe Marcus Aurelius would say, in the event that someone tells horrific lies about me, that I should begin my response by being grateful that I am alive to hear them.
For the moment, I am.
My hope, in telling you this tale, is not that you will think more or less of me because of what happened. Instead, I hope you’ll think more of yourself, of the extraordinary blessings you have around you, no matter who you are, or where you are. No matter how badly things are going for you right now, you are not dead, so there is a chance — a good one, actually — that things will get better. You don’t have to nearly kill yourself to find this out. If you’re smarter than I am, you can do it right now, sitting where you are. You can do it every moment.
What a gift that would be.
We live in a stressed age, an anxious age, a terrified age. Yet this is also a wondrous age, filled with daily miracles. The opportunities for us to do whatever we want, to reach for the best that is in us, have never been greater. If you believe in a God, wonderful. If he’s any God worth worshipping, He’s calling you onward, upward, to better things. If you don’t, then the fact that you’re still here means you have a chance to go forward into a better life every moment. Don’t wait until you hit a transport truck to find this out.