Proximity to death, or to the specter of death, can (and probably should) be a transformative experience. I recently wrote a piece about surviving a violent, perspective-shaking car crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. What I didn’t fully realize at the time, or even in the days and weeks that followed, was just how deeply it affected my sense of self and my sense of purpose.
Some of the effects were immediate, concrete, and observable right away. For instance, I immediately decided that I need to be more mindful and present in the time I spend with my family. I also immediately knew I needed to start pursuing goals I’d been keeping on the backburner for so long that the backburner itself was beginning to dissolve into empty space.
But the more I reflect on how I feel, where I want to go, and what I want to do, the more I realize that I’ve subconsciously (and now, consciously) been reshaping my priorities, reevaluating my outlook, and realigning my aspirations in much more comprehensive and far-reaching ways than I initially thought, as a result of the accident.
So I’ve started paying more attention, noticing how different my habits have become in just a few months.
What’s become clear is that the mindsets, the obsessions, the priorities, the pet interests, and the fragmentary perspectives that are peeling off and dropping from my personality fall into four primary buckets.
And these buckets represent the four things I’m quitting after my brush with death.
Nobody quits vanity. I know. This one is impossible. But you can at least bring it within reason, circumscribe it, and reflect on it honestly and critically.
At various points in my life I have been the acolyte, the celebrant, and the actual deity in my own cult of self. This cult of self hit its unprecedented peak on an evening last year when it took me nearly an hour to pick out something sufficiently stylish and edgy to wear to a pretty ho-hum party thrown by people for whom I felt nothing but sincere indifference. And while I haven’t hit this peak again since, the cult of self persists.
I have cared deeply about having very high-quality skincare products, because the daily email I’ve been receiving from GQ tells me very frequently that this is really important. I have spent tons of money on product regimens, on keeping up with fashionable designer menswear, on decorating myself with the accoutrements of status, and just generally performing my conception of coolness every minute of the day.
I cared deeply about persona, and I meticulously cultivated one capable of satisfying and sustaining my relentless vanity.
But now, realizing I very easily (and, honestly, very realistically) could have died in a totally random car accident in the middle of nowhere, it occurs to me that this cult of self I’ve been practicing for quite a while is not much more than a really slick, expensive facade for a self I don’t really completely know yet, a self in a perpetual state of becoming, which I’m now inclined to think is probably the optimal state for a self to be in.
So while I still care what I look like and how I present myself, I’m determined to quit the cultish, material, solipsistic elements of vanity.
I’ve tried to quit excess before. But this time it’s getting pretty serious. I’ve always been the type of person who purchases things for anticipated, but probably over-optimistically anticipated, use. I buy backups for things I haven’t actually even used. I acquire as if life were a staircase, at the top of which was completion, the successful acquisition of all things necessary for happiness.
I’ve always leaned this way, though. I remember, as an undergraduate literature student, reading T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, wishing I was more like the latter, believing deeply in the creative aspect of knowledge as opposed to the strict, acquisitive approach to knowledge espoused by the former.
Since my accident I’ve been slowly, gradually, almost unthinkingly (at first), selling and donating a lot of my stuff. Stuff that I do not use. Stuff that I feel could provide more value to someone else. And stuff I’m not sure how I even got in the first place.
This process began almost as instinct. It has since grown into a thoughtful, intentional shedding of the inessential.
Let this hit you like a brick:
“The mother of excess is not joy but joylessness.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
Throughout my twenties, I’ve frequently assured myself that once certain specified tasks were completed, once certain benchmarks were reached, once certain accomplishments were achieved, I would pursue “the stuff I really want to do.”
I’ve mentioned this quote before, but it’s worth repeating:
“You may delay, but time will not.” -Benjamin Franklin
In other words, you may put off doing the things you really want to do, but in the meantime you just might be randomly killed in a completely unpredictable, unpreventable car accident, which will transform what seemed at the time like sensible, cautious delay into uncorrectable, permanent inaction. So, with that in mind, I’m quitting delay.
Homeostasis is easier than change. In their book, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain:
“The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough.’”
Basically, if you want something different, do the work to make changes. Embrace your agency. This is what I intend to do.
It was supposed to be an exceedingly uneventful day. A day whose highlights would include the McDonald’s lunch I would inevitably (and guiltily) eat and (just as guiltily) enjoy, and the satisfying feeling of completion one feels after finishing an audiobook. Fourteen hours in my car, on the road, driving from the East Coast to St. Louis for my final year of law school, worrying mostly about whether all the coffee I drank in the morning would necessitate a bathroom stop every thirty minutes and prolong the already very long journey.
I was driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, through some middle-of-nowhere part of the state, using the cruise-control feature, my thoughts entirely unanchored to any urgent concern or pressing idea. My car was packed full of my belongings, at least those I had brought home with me and taken to New York City, where I spent the summer working at a law firm.
This particular swath of the PA Turnpike was one I knew well. After all, I’d gone to college and then graduate school in the Midwest, after which I taught in Chicago for three years. So every time I trekked home for holidays or vacations I took the same, unglamorous, thoroughly boring route through northern Indiana, northern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania, and then retraced it on my return. I had no reason to believe that this particular trip would be any different.
And so there I was, driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. As I was coming around a bend in the road I glanced into my rearview mirror. And then it happened.
A small car came screaming around the bend, lost control, and slammed into the passenger-side rear end of my car. The collision was so severe, so powerful, that it rotated my rear-right tire 180 degrees, to an angle perpendicular to the road, and pushed the tire up into the undercarriage of my vehicle.
The first thing I remember is spinning. My car spun. All of a sudden I was facing oncoming traffic, watching as the cars and trucks drove toward me. At me. Then I hit the median wall separating eastbound and westbound traffic. Due to the warped angle of my brutalized rear tire, there was no chance of regaining control.
Still facing oncoming traffic, my car began to flip over onto its side. I vividly remember this moment, because this was the moment in which I consciously prepared to die. In what was probably two or three seconds of elapsed time I simultaneously steeled myself for excruciating pain, for broken bones, for disfigurement, and resigned myself to the bewilderingly real possibility that this was it. This is how I die. Not in a hospital bed, surrounded by loved ones. Not in my sleep. Not peacefully, painlessly, or quietly. Not even in a house, or an apartment, or a room. But on the turnpike, the highway, in Somerset, Pennsylvania, a life prematurely ended, a still-youthful body unnaturally contorted in a smashed driver’s seat, haloed by shattered glass.
And so my car flipped over onto the driver’s side and slid another ten feet before coming to a stop.
Surely I’m about to be hit, and sent violently from this world, by oncoming traffic, I thought. My eyes were closed, and I kept them closed. I didn’t want to see it happen.
But then I opened them. I was still here. At least, for now. Wait, are my legs broken? Surely something is broken. I mentally tried to communicate with my legs. They responded. So far so good. My head is okay. I think. The driver’s side window, somehow, upon collision with the ground after my car toppled over, did not, in fact, shatter. My skull, consequently, had not been broken.
I unbuckled my seat belt, as my belongings in the passenger seat fell onto me. I tried frantically, instinctively, to open the passenger side door, threw myself at it. This car, as far as I was concerned, was now some kind of pre-death coffin and I had to get out. But I could not.
Soon, people began to approach my car. They ran to me, asking if I was okay, yelling for others. Somebody tried to force open the passenger-side door. It still wouldn’t budge.
But, luckily, my car had a glass sunroof. It became clear that my only means of egress was through this sunroof. So someone struck it with something until it shattered, and I crawled out.
My heart was palpitating. I felt almost drunk. Completely dazed, scanning my body, trying to focus, trying to feel where the injuries were, where the pain was going to emerge, where the bleeding was happening. Picking glass out of my shoes, out of my elbows.
The police arrived. I was told they had been chasing the man driving the car that barreled into mine. He was going 120 miles per hour when he hit me. What’s more, he had managed to climb out of his own damaged vehicle and was now fleeing on foot into the sparsely wooded fields along the road. I was later told that he had broken into a house, where he was eventually apprehended and arrested.
Mile marker 96.7. That’s what I remember looking at when I realized I had survived the crash. That I was not dead or dying. That somehow I was spared.
This is the first time I’ve written about the accident since it happened a month ago. For some reason I never thought to write it down, even though I still think about it almost daily. My neck still feels tight when I turn to look to my left. My ribs are still sore when I sneeze. I have some foreign sensations in my lower back. But these symptoms will pass.
One thing I think about often is the plate of brownies my mother wrapped in aluminum foil and gave to me that morning to eat on the road. She baked them the night before. And after the crash, when I was trying to gather my possessions from my completely totaled car, there were brownies plastered to everything. Smashed chocolate brownies. On the windshield, on my books, on the seats, on my bags, on my shirt. Everywhere. These chocolate brownies I would never eat, the manifestations of deep motherly love, were now everywhere. And I couldn’t remember if I’d even thanked her for making them.
Since the crash, I’ve thought a lot about randomness, about transience, about luck, and about life. In some ways I suppose you could say it was a bit of a wake-up call, a reminder of just how easily you can be plucked from your existence, of all the different ways there are to die. Which obviously, naturally leads one to think hypothetically. Would I have been satisfied with the life I’d lived, had I died that day on the Pennsylvania Turnpike? Would I have wished for more? What would I regret?
Dwelling on these things a bit, I made a few promises to myself, promises I want to share, though they are, admittedly, cliché, sentimental, and stuff we probably all innately know. But sometimes these are the types of things it’s easiest to forget, and it shouldn’t take a car crash to bring them back into the foreground.
Promise #1: I will be more present in the moments I spend with loved ones. Sub-promise: As someone with an occasionally (I admit it) irrepressible allergy to platitudes and sentimentality, I will, nevertheless, make the extra mental effort to quiet this part of my brain and embrace, consciously and deliberately, even if only to myself, the warming miracle of familial love. I know, I know, we all know this is a healthy, good thing to do. But knowing and doing are two different things. I “knew” that being mindful during time with your family was the healthy thing to do before my car was completely destroyed on the Pennsylvania turnpike, and yet, when I emerged from my toppled vehicle, alive, walking, and breathing, my thoughts immediately drifted to whether or not I thanked my mother for making brownies just for me, her twenty-eight year-old son.
Promise #2: From here on out, I will live a life that is utterly, unabashedly mine. Outrageously, singularly, exuberantly mine. This means, for starters, pursuing the things that get me up in the morning, the things that get me all riled up and inspired. I will internalize, deeply and profoundly, the fact that we have a finite amount of time on this planet. And that time decreases with each passing day. As Ben Franklin said, “You may delay, but time will not.” So no delays.
Promise #3: I will write more, write constantly, persistently, for everyone and no one. I spent the majority of my life wanting to write, but stopped, for no reason, during a particularly naïve and angsty undergraduate crisis of literary faith. Hereafter, however, I will fear no intellectual paralysis, no mental blockages, no dry wells of creativity, no embarrassments. Hereafter I will share my thoughts, I will write myself to clarity or sweet, meaningful confusion. And then I’ll do it again.
“Write relentlessly, until you find your voice. Then, use it.” -David Sedaris
These promises don’t fulfill themselves, and they can’t be fulfilled overnight. And we all have different promises we make to ourselves. But I think the important thing is to do exactly that. Make promises to yourself. Work at those promises. Make them part of who you are. And each day try to be more intentional than the last.
III. Closing Thoughts
The most misread and misunderstood poem in the history of poetry is probably Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Most people think it means we should take the proverbial road less travelled, which symbolizes being ourselves, individuality, nonconformity, etc.
But this is simply inorrect. The poet says on three different occasions in a five-stanza poem that the roads are practically identical:
“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black…”
The narrator is not intentionally choosing to take a path that is obviously less travelled. He is choosing between two paths that are equally worn.
The poem is about ascribing meaning to experience retrospectively.
As for me, and how this relates to my car crash, there are many ways for me to interpret or ascribe meaning to it. I could fixate on the randomness of death, perhaps throw myself down a nihilistic rabbit hole, and come to a Jean-Paul Sartre conclusion, that “every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.” And this may or may not be true. Its truth or falsity is not the point. I could alternatively choose to ascribe no meaning whatsoever to the experience, which, in a sense, is not intellectually far off from the Sartre point of view.
Or, I can choose to interpret my car accident as a clarifying event. An event casting my lived experience theretofore in high relief against my purported aspirations and ideals. A stirring, rousing near-death experience. After all, if my car had been struck on the left side instead of the right side, my gas tank would have been destroyed, and who knows what would’ve happened. Or my passenger side window could have shattered onto my face. My airbags could have malfunctioned. Is there a reason I was spared? Is there a reason anyone is spared? There are no answers to these questions. There is only the meaning you ascribe to your experience, and how that meaning informs your life.
When I’m an old man, like the old man in “The Road Not Taken,” I will look back at that Monday in late August and think, I almost died, could’ve died, but I didn’t. And that experience woke me up to some things I should never have forgotten, before the forgetting became irreversible, before the forgetting was total.
I will look back and say I survived for a reason, or rather, I choose to believe that I survived for a reason, and that, as the poem goes “has made all the difference.”