"One ought, everyday at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and speak a few reasonable words." --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Monday, July 25, 2011

Half a Life

"A ton of regret never makes an ounce of difference."
--Grenville Kleiser, Dictionary of Proverbs

I recently read the haunting memoir of Darin Strauss called Half a Life and was so moved by it, I wanted to share. I don’t know what attracted me to the book; I don’t normally read memoirs. The best explanation I can come up with is that something about it called out to me and reeled me in. It certainly wasn’t the book’s physical appearance: nondescript red cloth cover, no pictures, title and author the only defining attributes. But pick it up I did – all the way to the cash register. Incomprehensible.

The book begins in 1988 with 18-year old Darin Strauss driving along a four-lane road with his high school friends on their way to play a round of miniature golf on a spring day. The weather is gorgeous and sunny, and people are out enjoying the pleasant conditions. While driving along in the far left lane, Strauss notices several bicyclists ahead on the right shoulder, traveling in the same direction as his car. As he approaches, he can see one of the bicyclists - a girl - having a little difficulty. First she wobbles on her bike from the shoulder onto the highway. Then moments later, she inexplicably swerves across the lanes into his car's path. The next morning, the Strauss family is notified that the bicyclist, Celine Zilke, a somewhat unfamiliar classmate, is dead.

There was nothing he could have done. The police confirm the fact. The local newspaper runs an article publicly exonerating him. The insurance companies label the accident a ‘no fault fatality.’ But Darin lives with crippling survivor’s guilt, which he describes with brutal, excruciating honesty and agonizing eloquence. His first heart-wrenching sentence: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”  

The most thought provoking thing about his story, to me, was the role of fault and blame in the healing process. On page 127, Strauss writes: “Some years ago, researchers at George Washington University studied the psychological effect of what police call ‘dart-out’ deaths and what insurers call a ‘no-fault fatality’: car crashes, like Celine’s and mine, where someone hurries into an automobile. In the United States, some two thousand drivers a year survive ‘dart-outs.’ And these drivers are more likely to get laid out by post-traumatic stress syndrome than are those who are irrefutably to blame in fatal accidents. No one knows why. Probably the brain prefers a sturdy error to fixate on. It’s hard to learn so viscerally that the questions of guilt and worth are managed with indifference, by nasty chance.” 

How heartbreaking to those who live with a lifetime of guilt, unable to fully heal because there is no irrefutable error to take responsibility for! What does is say about the human psyche that we are more comfortable with assigning fault than living with the fact that sometimes accidents happen? Why is this so difficult to accept?

Maybe it's because accidents shake our perceptions of control. We would rather take the blame (and guilt and regret) or blame someone else for something that was no one’s fault than accept that we can’t control everything. Even worse, accidents force us violently broadside into the earth-shattering realization that sometimes no one can (or should) be punished for the bad things that happen in this world. So, we punish ourselves for a long time to avoid the absolutely abhorrent next step: the eventual recognition that sometimes these bad things are good for us.

Darin Strauss spent half his life running from these facts. It wasn’t until he faced them that he learned that he, “would have been a different person had the accident not happened.” He continues, “Without Celine, I wouldn’t have become a writer. And therefore, I would not have met my wife [or had my twin sons].”

“Maybe I could have done fifty things to avoid the accident. Left the car in the garage that day. Hurried through a yellow light that I’d stopped at. Gone to the beach instead of mini-golf. Been alone, not talking to friends. But I did all those things, and Celine hadn’t done the many things she could have to avoid the accident, either. All the things get done and you regret them and then you accept them because there’s nothing else to do. Regret doesn’t budge things; it seems crazy that the force of all that human want can’t amend a moment, can’t even stir a pebble.”

“I remember [the officer assigned to the accident] once told me if I’d swerved the car differently that May 1988 morning, I might have flipped it. Say that had happened. Say Celine had lived and I hadn’t; what of herself would she need to put to the side, in trying to think about me: the stranger who’d managed somehow to swerve away from her bike, and who had died because of it?

“I used to think I’d like her to not remember me at all. Not to have to contend—at eighteen, at thirty-five, at all life’s cozy moments—with a stranger. I’d like her to be spared the feeling that she’d traveled for two decades with a ghost.

“But now I don’t know. I don’t know if that would be fair, or even best for her. And not, I don’t think, because I’d want the spirit of who I was to be kept quote unquote alive in her. It’s more that if she’d been too comfortable with my dying, she wouldn’t have remained a fully live person herself.

“It’s not that I outran Celine, or that half of my life. It’s the reverse. The accident taught me this.

“Things don’t go away. They become you. There is no end, T.S. Eliot somewhere says, but addition: the trailing consequence of further days and hours. No freedom from the past, or from the future.

“But we keep making our way, as we have to. We’re all pretty much able to deal even with the worst that life can fire at us, if we simply admit that it is very difficult. I think that’s the whole answer.”

Life IS very difficult…but we make it infinitely more so with the punishments of regret and guilt that we exact on ourselves and others over things we cannot change. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”--Reinhold Niebuhr

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