15 June 2012

On Accidents

Anna Rose is a bit concerned about her new responsibility as a camp counselor.
For the first time she recognizes that she will be responsible for a group of others even more vulnerable than herself. As part of her training she was told a cautionary tale of a drowning, “a complete accident,” of a six year old boy. She became frightened that under her charge someone might not be safe. I tried to reassure: to her description of herself as spacey and unaware, I responded that others referred to her consistently as kind and warm. But she rightly pointed out that kind and warm were not the opposite of spacey and unaware. Regardless of the accuracy of her self-description, I think what she was acknowledging an awareness of accidents. 
Accidents are those things that happen for which we are not prepared and which we did not expect. Accidents occur outside our will and despite all of our knowledge. We can never know enough to prevent accidents from occurring though perhaps our knowledge can limit their incidence or mitigate their impact. One prepares in the anticipation of an accident and makes plans in the event should one occur. I think of the training of airline pilots in flight simulations that create accidents to train the pilots how to handle them should one of these situations actually occur. In these training episodes it is someone’s job to invent accidents for which to prepare others to respond, I think to do so requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and imagination. And even a rather morbid sense of the way of the world: it is this person’s job to invent things that go wrong so that in the event that they actually do happen someone will have learned procedures to avert some larger calamity. Most of us just engage in defensive driving and alert observing to prevent accidents from occurring, and I think that for the most part we are successful. But not always regardless of our attentiveness.
They call them accidents because they cannot be planned for completely. They will occur always despite our caution because we neither have access to absolute knowledge nor possess absolute control over ourselves and especially of other. They (the ubiquitous they) will sometimes do things that result in the occurrence of accidents: break a window or dish; crush a fender; enter the water where they should not swim, because they, too, do not possess absolute knowledge or control. Sometimes this situation occurs as a result of inexperience and sometimes it happens from obstinate willfulness.  We all maintain only limited control over and knowledge of those objects that we have brilliantly created. The artist of Kouroo remained unconcern with time in his attempt to create the perfect walking stick. Because he had both world enough and time, accidents were hardly an issue;  but alas, we are always subject to constraints of time. We make mistakes in our mortal attempt to get things done. Accidents occur. Because we don’t yet know anything, and have not time to learn all before we act, and because everything new we create brings it with it new contingencies for which we are not prepared, accidents will occur.
And so I tell my daughter that accidents will always happen, but that the more knowledge we acquire in and of the world the better able we may be to first, prevent their the accident from befalling, and second, and then to handle the consequences when the accident inevitably happens. Learning is the best preventative we have to avoid and to mitigate accidents, but this prescription sometimes a hard sell.
The Jews have a prayer to cover this somewhat distressing aspect of life covered by the concept ‘accident:” “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.” This is the traditional blessing said on every festive occasion and holiday. It recognizes the contingency of this world and declares our knowledge that it is a mercy that we are alive and well enough to celebrate whatever the occasion might be for which we now are gathered. It is a good blessing. The blessing accepts the reality of accidents and our relief at not having experienced one.


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