This is a very personal article. It is one person’s story of how thinking beyond himself and taking visible local action in the present became a life-guiding principle. It’s about responsibility and occasional courage.
On the Saturday morning of April 20 when I was 16 years old, my mother set off to drive to work. It was an easy drive of 11 miles from the little town of Elmira, Ontario. There was a bit of fresh spring snow on the road.
In less than 10 minutes from the time my mother left, my uncle Jim arrived at the door to say “Doreen is gone.” She had been killed in a car accident.
I was the oldest of four boys who were not strangers to such tragedy and the grieving that follows. Seven or eight years earlier our father had been killed in a plane crash. I remember later that morning one of my brothers looking to me and saying, “We’re orphans.”
As events were pieced together through various eyewitnesses, the following is what appears to have happened.
While still in town my mother’s 1949 Studebaker Starlight Coupe skidded on the wet snow on the straight and level street which led out of town. She was driving very slowly, perhaps 15 or 20 mph, so she fairly quickly came to a stop sideways in the middle of the road. There had been no traffic. But before she could drive ahead and continue on her journey, another car sped down the middle of the road into town and T-boned her car. She died instantly; she was 41. For me , it was one of the most heartbreaking t-bone accidents ever.
There was to be a court case: the other driver versus my mother’s tiny estate. I went with my uncle around to the local farms and businesses to interview all the witnesses to the accident. Each told his part of the story. Together they wove a coherent picture of what had happened. Mother’s car skidded and came to a stop for a few seconds. The other car sped into town at about 70 mph in a 30 mph zone. There were reports that the other driver had been drinking.
But every single one of the eyewitnesses ended his story with, “But I don’t want to get involved.” That statement still rings through my mind. Since not a single witness would stand up, the driver of the other car succeeded in convincing the court that my mother had pulled out to pass someone and had hit his car. He won his lawsuit, leaving us very little.
When my 16-year-old mind was able to comprehend the enormity of the injustice, I made up my mind that if I ever witnessed an accident I would stand up and tell what I saw. My decision soon expanded to my refusing to walk away from an injustice. My own convenience and occasionally my safety would have to be secondary.
I have lost track of the number of times I have offered a blanket and myself as a witness to strangers who have been in an accident or suffered an injustice. I have stood up in court a few times, once for nine hours at a coroner’s inquest.
I have learned a lot from the trauma of my mother’s death and the further injustice that followed, as well as from my decision and subsequent testimony. Living a meaningful life involves a willingness to stand up and be very visible and very present. Sometimes doing what’s right takes courage. For me, authentic living became an exercise in self-exposure. I have no regrets.
The good life is not about hiding or avoiding or trying to be invisible. Living an authentic life cannot be an act. It is a state of being from which may flow a lot of action, some of it uncomfortable. Life is about being real, and a real person is not one person at home and another at work, another in the lineup at the Post Office and yet another in court. A real person is “out there,” so “what you see is what you get.”
Copyright © Neill Neill. All rights reserved. Dr. Neill Neill, Registered Psychologist, maintains an active psychology and life-coaching practice on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. He is a member of the treatment team at Sunshine Coast Health Centre, an alcohol and drug rehab center for men. His goal is to help you to help yourself to a better life. Visit http://www.neillneill.com for other articles and commentary on practical psychology, including positive psychology.
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