If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. ~Mother Teresa
How do we value a life?
Recent events have had me musing more than usual about people, life, what we think is important, and how we pay attention (or don’t!) to the things around us.
It was a sad Monday in August when I learned that comedian and actor Robin Williams had taken his life. As I read the articles my friends posted on Facebook, I learned more about the man behind the characters we know so well. In addition to being a talented actor with a flair for comedy, he was an enthusiastic cyclist who volunteered for organizations like the Challenged Athletes Foundation and was known to show up for group rides in his home town. An ordinary guy with more money than many, living his life while dealing with his internal demons including a history of addiction and the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease.
The following day was my 13 year wedding anniversary and I took off from work to enjoy a rare mid-week holiday with my husband. We treated ourselves to breakfast at one of our favorite restaurants, and while checking my email on the way home I learned that a local cyclist had been killed on an event I would have been riding had I not gotten too sick to complete the qualifying rides earlier this spring. While I didn’t know him personally, he was a close friend of several people I ride with regularly. I had exchanged emails with him, had ridden some of his group rides, and am friends with the first person to come upon the scene of the accident where he was hit by a young man driving a pick-up truck towing a horse trailer at dusk. I read the emails and links about the accident in a state of shock. He was 33 years old, finishing a PhD, and planning to be married, all cut short by a driver who may have simply been inexperienced, or who may have been distracted or worse.
Wednesday morning as I was preparing to head out for my morning ride I learned of another accident. This time, an intoxicated motorist drove the wrong way around Fiesta Island, a popular San Diego playground for runners, cyclists, equestrians, and roller bladers, and plowed into a group of 30 cyclists. 10 riders were injured, one who is still hospitalized with life-threatening injuries at the time of this writing.
All this the week after the daughter of a friend was in a car accident (thankfully she’s ok thought the car was euthanized), and yet another local rider was severely injured after a head-on collision with another cyclist.
Too many tragedies in two short weeks. Too many people not paying attention.
As I sit and reflect on whether my continuing to ride a bike is akin to Icarus flying into the sun, I find myself musing about what it is that allows humans to justify operating a vehicle (motorized or pedaled) while texting, drinking, applying make-up, and all the other things they do which distract them from the task at hand. How have we become so incredibly busy and stressed that we feel a need to do three things at once while living in the future rather than the now.
I keep coming back to stress. In most major cities in the US, housing prices are climbing, food prices have gone through the roof, electricity and gas are more expensive, health care is outrageous, and salaries are shrinking. Employers have steadily given workers the message that their work can easily be outsourced, that there are a million other people out there willing and eager to do their jobs, and they had best shut up and put up or they can head to the door. In America, one of every five people reports being extremely stressed at work, and that stress can’t help but carry over into the rest of their lives.
Stress is one of the leading causes of insomnia, chronic digestive issues like heartburn and diarrhea, headaches, and high blood pressure. It is a contributor to high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, depression, and anxiety.
When we feel like we can’t leave work half an hour early to go to the kids’ soccer games, or that our jobs are at risk if we take a day off when sick, or that the salary we depend on to pay the mortgage can disappear at any moment when our employer decides to outsource the position to someone in Asia who is happy to work for 25% of an American paycheck, we are simply unable to pay attention to what is happening around us.
We make mistakes. The car veers a little to the right as we reach to take that call from a customer. We drink that extra cocktail because we deserve it, damn it! We apply mascara at stoplights because we were too busy making the kids’ lunches and shuttling them off to school to take the time for proper grooming of ourselves at home. We resort to fast-food take-out for dinner because meal planning is one more thing to pile on top of a day which is already too full. We push ourselves to the limit of safety and our bodies’ capabilities when we work out because we have to make every second count and we’re already feeling guilty about taking the time for ourselves to exercise. And our mistakes kill people.
When we feel unimportant in significant portions of our lives, we tend to over-inflate our sense of importance in other areas. We accuse the slower folks on the road of being in our way, of impeding our progress towards an ever elusive target. Cyclists and runners become objects blocking our progress and cease to be people. Objects can be pushed aside, run over, and discarded without consequence.
I am a cyclist. I love the quiet of the bike, the feel of the wind in my face, the sheer physical pleasure of pedaling a two wheeled vehicle to faraway places. My bike and I share about 6000 miles every year. I am also a wife, a daughter, a sister, and a practitioner of Chinese medicine with patients who depend on me for their health. And yes, I drive a car. I like to believe that my life is worth something, that I am not simply an object to be disdained, run over, and discarded because my slower vehicle is in the way.
I ask you to take a moment and reflect. What is a human life worth? It is rare to wait more than 5 minutes for a safe place to pass a cyclist or to allow a runner or walker to finish crossing the road. 5 minutes of a $500/hour attorney’s time is worth $41.16, and most of us earn far less than this. Is the life you risk really worth it? Is the life of your son or daughter or mother or husband worth it?
Could you live with yourself if you were that 16 year old driver with the horse trailer or that cyclist who flew too fast around a corner to plow into another rider? How would you feel if the cyclist on the other end of that distracted motorist were your wife or son or father or friend?
We’ve reached the point where we are so absorbed by our own misery, our own sense of urgency, the illusion of our own importance that we no longer care about how our actions impact the lives of the people around us and we engage in behavior we wouldn’t tolerate from our 3 year olds. How often do we punish our children for unconsciously grabbing another child’s toy or knocking another kid over while rushing to get to the swings first? For refusing to share the last bits of ice cream with a brother or sister? For lying about finishing her homework? Is our behavior really different when we bully our way around a cyclist justifying it because we’re late to a meeting? Or when we run a red light just this once because our child is late to a soccer game? When our kids commit these willful or unconscious acts of oblivion or aggression, we send them to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.
Perhaps it’s time for the grown-ups to take a time out. Time to sit yourself down and take a good hard look at what is and is not working in your life. Time to re-evaluate whether each precious minute you have is consumed by stressing out about all the “important” things you have to get done, or whether these minutes are spent consciously LIVING. Because when we live consciously, we respect the lives of others. We may be annoyed by them, but we aren’t compelled to run them over and leave them bleeding on the side of the road while we rush off to nowhere. We are able to recognize that perhaps the driver in front of us who seems distracted is worrying about a sick parent or child. We can see that the cyclist ahead has no safe way to yield to us, and accept that in a few minutes we’ll be able to pass without risking anyone’s lives. We wait patiently for the pedestrian to cross the street because tomorrow we might be that pedestrian and we want our communities to be safe places to walk.
I ask you to consider once again…how do we value a life? What if it’s yours?
Afterword: I am currently working on creating a comprehensive stress management program for people who have reached a point where stress is negatively impacting their lives. I’ve put together a quiz to help you determine just how stressed you are, and will be putting the finishing touches on it over the next two weeks. I’ll post a link to the quiz in the comments section for this post when it is available, and I’d love to see you take the quiz and then TAKE ACTION to get a handle on your stress!