One of the greatest benefits of being an early riser is beating traffic on my way to the office each morning. Generally, because I am substantially ahead traffic, I don’t have to think too much about driving, as my brain warms up to the day’s tasks. The other day, a truck running a red light changed all of that.
When my son started driving, I taught him to check both directions every time he entered an intersection, even if he has a green light. You can’t assume that people are going to stop for red lights, I told him. They could be texting, drunk, falling asleep or otherwise distracted. It’s a good thing that I heeded my advice that morning.
My light turned green, and as I entered the intersection to turn left, even before I could turn my head to look farther up the road, I caught a flash in the corner of my eye and had just enough time to slam on my brakes before a truck sped past my front bumper. Fortunately, there was no one else in the intersection, because I sat frozen at a complete stop for a moment, making sure that my light was green, and his was red. My hands were shaking, and my heart was racing as I drove on, thinking about what had just happened.
It could have all ended in that intersection. The huge truck never slowed down, and was probably exceeding the 45 MPH speed limit. If I hadn’t hit my brakes or had he been in the lane closest to me, he likely would have nailed my driver’s side door.
Everything that I wanted to do that day, that week, that month, that year – my hopes and aspirations, my worries and concerns – would have been gone. My wife and children were still in bed, and however I left them the night before would have been how I left them permanently. I felt like I was in a life insurance commercial or made-for-TV movie, but this was very real. I had been awakened to my own fragile mortality.
Every day, people are killed in accidents, like the one I narrowly avoided. Every day, many more die from illnesses or even as victims of crime. Our brave men and women in combat zones face this daily. The soldier never knows when he’s tied his boots for the last time.
Like the soldier, many of us never see it coming, and it’s terrifying to think about how quickly our lives can be over or permanently changed. Even if we do everything correctly and carefully, as I was doing that morning, there is virtually no way to be 100 percent safe. That realization can be debilitating, but it shouldn’t keep us at home. A sheltered life is an incomplete life.
Instead, the realization that we’re owed no warning on how much time we have left should heighten our awareness of how we are living our lives. Since this incident, I am much more aware of my surroundings as I drive, but that awareness doesn’t end when I’m in my garage. I am also much more aware of how I am “driving” through life.
Am I like the busy mother rushing her children to school, so focused on a destination that she doesn’t see spring blooming in the roadside bushes? Or, am I like my late grandfather on a Sunday, driving his home county’s gravel roads with the windows rolled down gazing in awe at the only landscape he ever knew?
Likewise, am I cursing life’s detours, instead of seizing on the opportunity to try something new? Do I allow life’s everyday traffic to negatively influence my mood, instead of properly assigning it inconsequential status?
Several days have passed since my intersection experience – several days that could have been taken from me. None of them have been perfect, but all of them were gifts. In fact, the experience itself was a gift – albeit one that I never want to receive again.