Two weeks ago, I was driving 55 miles per hour down a country highway when the left rear wheel came off my 1994 Jeep Cherokee. I heard a bang, the car settled on its rim, and I began to turn right towards the shoulder (I think I even signalled). The wheel rolled ahead of me, across the highway, missing the nearest car traveling in the opposite direction by about 200 feet. I drove the car another 30 or 40 feet onto the shoulder, stopped, put it in park, and went to retrieve the wheel. It was ruined, but there was no other damage to me or to the vehicle.
A cop who came by moments later explained that wheels never come off automobiles in the absence of human negligence. I had had the mandated New York State inspection a week earlier. The garage attendant had removed two wheels from my car and apparently forgot to tighten the nuts on one when he replaced it.
I've been thinking about this experience ever since.
Where was God in all this?
The following week, a colleague of mine told me how, earlier in the day, an eighteen wheeler ran a stop-sign at full speed, and missed his small car in the intersection by only a few feet. He said, "Its given me a whole different attitude to God."
He did not explain, but evidently his brush with the truck left him a believer, or more of one than he had been before. This is usually what people mean.
It would be less typical, but he could just as easily have meant that he learned that God was the type of being who would aim a truck at him.
I believe God is a wash. The problem with looking for God in this kind of experience is that you can add God on either side of the equation, so that He cancels himself out. God might have saved me from the consequences of losing the wheel, or He might have made it come off. I am certain that I would have no problem finding devout, sincere people who would have no trouble believing and justifying each position.
"Your time is not up yet, so God saved you.....just imagine if He had let the wheel come off a few days earlier, when you were driving 70m miles an hour on the expressway!"
"You've been getting a swelled head recently, and God just wanted to remind you that in the midst of life we are in death...."
This is similar to the correspondence between the following two equations:
The ones don't change anything, just as God doesn't add anything to the analysis. With equal plausibility, God might have intervened either to jettison the wheel or to save me; I am better off canceling Him out of the equation and following Occam's Razor, the rule that the simplest explanation is likely the correct one.
The simplest explanation does not involve God. The loss of my wheel was a random event, caused by human negligence, not by God.
Just as the statement "God did it" is grammatical but not meaningful, the statement which several people made to me immediately after, "You were lucky," also does not mean anything.
The only reasonable interpretation of "You were lucky" is:
"Its good (or: I am glad) you did not have a serious injury as a result of losing the wheel."
Although I was happy not to be hurt, and also pleased that others were happy I was not hurt, I cannot agree that "luck" plays a role in the universe. Not if we mean by "luck" a quality which attaches more to some people than to others, of not having bad things happen to them.
Causation and luck are inconsistent concepts. A man forgot to tighten the nuts on my wheel. The nuts came off, and then the wheel shimmied loose. This happened at a moment at which I was driving 55, but could just as easily have happened when I was driving 70 miles an hour. "Luck" is an idea as empty as "God", in proposing a force outside of the chain of causation influencing the outcome. Luck is in fact a primitive form of God, the precursor of a belief in a rational deity.
I am a superstitious person, and it would be easy for me to believe in luck if I let myself. I have had so many close calls in my life-- incidents in the car or elsewhere which could have been serious but were not--that it would be very easy to say I have some special destiny. But I know better and will not let myself go there.
In the midst of life we are in the midst of death. Three days later, my wife and I arrived at an intersection three minutes after a pedestrian had been struck by a speeding car. We saw him lying in the road, bleeding from the head, being worked on by nurses who happened to be passing at the crucial moment. Several months before, we read in the newspaper that a woman had been killed in an auto accident at the corner of our street in the country. When as a child I asked my father if I could grow up to be killed in a war, he said, "It always happens to the other guy." But I knew the other guy's father also told him that.
For years, I was obsessed by the idea that life could end unexpectedly at any moment. There were times at which I felt that this knowledge made it impossible to live peacefully, let alone joyfully. Later, with the help of a careful reading of the works of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, I came to the conclusion that the best response to the possibility of death is to confront life stoically, with the acceptance of its imminent end. And to conduct yourself so that if you should die, you do so with a minimum of regrets. In an essay I wrote years ago, I suggested that one conduct a daily balance of one's life. Asking every evening how you did today promotes not leaving any loose ends. I learned to leave for lengthy trips securely knowing that I was straight with everyone I loved.
By my twenties, I already felt I had had most of the basic human experiences, and some others as well. I learned you can live a full life in twenty years or an empty one in eighty. If you do the former, and survive your twentieth year, you discover that life, like software development, is an iterative process. For a while, you may cycle through the same experiences learning more or discovering new emotional nuances; but that does not undercut the intensity of the first love, or child, or mountaintop, or whale or Greek ruin. There is no reason to think that had Mozart lived to be three hundred, he would have written a symphony ten times better than no. 40 in G Minor.
At fourteen, thirty years ago this month, I rode my bicycle recklessly down a hill on Cape Cod and around a blind curve. I found myself pointed straight at the hood of a speeding car approaching me. The driver swerved and missed me. Another teenager was killed a year later at that spot. Everything since that day has been icing.
Web of Trust
Losing a wheel was a reminder that we live in a web of trust. Every day we make decisions which affect the lives of other people, and every day we place our own well-being in the hands of others. Our mutual dependency, since it is something we rarely think about, astonishes when its full extent is revealed. We not only rely on our fellows not to shoot us or poison the products we buy at the store; we rely on them to build the houses we live in and the bridges we drive on, install the appliances which may electrocute or gas us, and manufacture the medications which may kill us. We allow doctors to put us under with anaesthetic, and airline pilots to convey us across the skies.
An employee of my local gas station lost track of whether he had tightened the nuts on both wheels. Or perhaps it wasn't really important to him. I would hope that if it was my job and I couldn't remember, I would check them a second time to make sure.
The tow truck driver who took my Jeep to his gas station said that this was the fourth instance he'd seen this month of a wheel coming off a car as a result of a negligent inspection.
Perception and rationalization
We are constantly assimilating the partial information we receive to preconceived patterns. When the pattern no longer serves to impose a structure on the information, we sometimes discover another pattern that works better, and call the process of adopting the new pattern a "paradigm shift."
I had been hearing an unfamiliar noise from the rear of the car. As it happened, I had a kayak on top of the Jeep, and the chain I used to lock it to the rack was over the left rear wheel. I decided that the noise was the rattling of the chain against the rooftop. I secured the chain so it didn't touch the roof: I still heard the noise. I had just decided to investigate further when the paradigm shifted: my wheel came off and rolled across the highway.
My enemy the state
The tow truck driver explained the economics of the New York-mandated inspection. The state requires the gas station to buy a machine for $60,000.00, but it only allows it to charge $35.00. As a result, the stations take on as many inspections as possible, and spend only a few minutes on each one. The result, according to the driver, is a lot of lost wheels-- he had towed four other cars that month alone.
A state rule instituted to protect my safety nearly killed me instead.
I spent more than a thousand dollars replacing the wheel and renting a car until I got the Jeep back. I will approach the gas station and complain to them; they will deny everything; at that point I will be forced to sue in small claims court, as I am unlikely to find an attorney to take on such a small case. A dispute which in another type of society would be resolved by an apology and a quick check will become a no-win situation: I will inevitably have to dedicate more than a thousand dollars of my time to get compensation for my loss. If I walk away from it, the gas station will have endangered me without being held responsible, and will be that much more likely to go on and do the same to someone else, perhaps with much worse consequences.
During the thirty minutes which elapsed from the moment the wheel came off until the tow truck arrived, one motorist stopped to ask if I needed a jack. Numerous others passed me by, including three or four drivers who actually saw the wheel separate from the car and roll across the highway.
On one occasion in recent years, I have stopped to make sure people stranded at roadside were all right: two women whose car broke down in a bad neighborhood in Dallas. More frequently, I have called 911 on my cellphone to inform the authorities that people were stranded, that a car was on fire, etc.
The problem is, of course, that you never take a long road trip without passing three or four people who are in trouble. Standard operating procedure is to ignore them. If you stopped to offer help to everyone, it would delay you in getting to your goal, warp your life out of shape too much.
Several days later, when the man was run down at the intersection, there was no shortage of people eager to save him. They didn't all know how. It made me think that people are not quite as unfeeling as I suspected; they simply perform triage. A car is broken down by the side of the road. The driver is an adult male with a cellphone. He will live. The inconvenience to me if I stop outweighs the help I can possibly give. If it was a more helpless looking person, or if someone was injured, I would stop.
Losing a wheel makes me imagine living in a smaller world. Neighbors who saw you in trouble would stop to help. You would know the garage owner and the mechanic personally.The latter wouldn't neglect the bolts on your car. If he did, the owner would personally aplogize and pay the expenses without a murmur. Because we care about each other or at least about our own status in the community if we fail to do the right thing.
Morality, like democracy, may work better in communities of no more than ten thousand people.
Less than a minute elapsed from the moment I heard a bang and the wheel separated, to my parking the car on the shoulder and exiting it. There was no time to feel frightened. In the past, when I have been in dangerous situations that were over in five or ten minutes, I have had the same impression: you are too busy acting or watching (with a view to acting). There is no time to feel frightened.
I have had the experience of feeling a bit heavy in danger, and having difficulty speaking. For example, I was held at machine gun-point once, during the robbery of a Paris post office, and my girlfriend (her face hidden behind my back) kept asking what was happening. I answered, "They're robbing the place," and "They're leaving now," and had the feeling both times that I was speaking slowly and with extraordinary difficulty, as if through molasses. If this was fear, it was a duller, more pervasive but less active emotion than I had expected. Though a strong enough sensation of this type would mean complete paralysis, it was very different from the running, falling down, trembling panic I had always conceived as fear. In movies, frightened people writhe, hold up supplicating hands, become unable to function.
I have read that most trained pilots do not panic in an emergency; they are too preoccupied trying to save their own lives, and there is always one more thing to try. When the wheel came off, I steered off the road, parked the car and put the blinker on without a second thought. Even in the Paris post office, in a situation where passivity meant survival, I sheltered my girlfriend, while trying to make as narrow and small a target of both of us as possible. In retrospect, this was, if not completely instinctive, something so deeply ingrained in us, that I marvel at it still. If I had had a conversation a minute before about the right way to conduct oneself at gunpoint, I doubt I would have said, "Squat and turn to one side, because you present a smaller target." I just did it when the moment called for it.
Fear came the next day. Driving the rental car, and then two days later when I got the Jeep back, I kept listening for the rattling noise that presaged the loss of the wheel. Like a child hearing about a heart attack or a tornado for the first time, I now had something new to worry about, something I previously had not even known was possible. Joseph Conrad was right in Lord Jim, where he identified fear with imagination. Fear means having the leisure, and the imagination, to think of all the horrible things that can happen to you.
The loss of a wheel makes an interesting sign. The significance: the operation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics upon our technology and by extension, our lives. The awful foreknowledge as one hears the bang and the wheel starts to come off. The wheel is off the car of our lives. The wheel is off the car of state.
I was left with a nagging, open-ended anxiety. A mechanic was negligent and didn't fasten the nuts. The wheel came off, even though I trusted and was dependent upon him. It could happen again. There might have been a terrible result. If it had, many people would have been curious or mildly sad, as people were about the man run down three days later. Few would have been devastated. Life goes on without me. There is a new and unforeseen hole in life, caused by the new knowledge: you can lose a wheel.
I wrote this essay in order to close that hole.