Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Meaning of Bad Luck: Shit Happens

By Tom Kando

I was biking in the beautiful California Gold Country. The Green Valley Road meanders up and down 2,000 to 3,000-foot hills, through wild, scenic, wooded areas, occasionally flanked by a ranch. Very little traffic, clear blue winter sky. It’s 4:00 PM, the sun is already low in the West. I have just climbed up to the tiny town of Rescue, 35 miles East of Sacramento. I turn around for the return trip, which shouldn’t take much more than an hour, since most of it is steeply downhill.

Just as I put the pedal to the metal on one of the few uphills on the way home, a terrific BANG! Before I realize what’s going on, I am briefly airborne, and then I crash on the pavement, painfully, where I roll onto my left side.
Through sheer survival instinct, I immediately jump up, almost spring-like, and I run to the side of the road. I see the red Jetta which has just run me over. It drives away and disappears in a right-hand turn a few hundred yards up the road. I think, “hit-and-run.” I sit down in the gravel, in shock, my left arm pulsating with excruciating pain.
A few minutes later, the driver of the red Jetta walks down to help me. Not a hit-and-run after all. My arm is broken and I have multiple lacerations. My helmet is fractured, but it saved me. My bicycle is mangled, my tights and my parka are bloody and torn.
I spend the rest of the day in the ER, and the next weeks navigating the bureaucracy - insurance companies, police reports, doctors’ offices. Plus weeks of discomfort. Trying to live, to get dressed, to go places, to type and get things done with the one hand and one arm that are not in a cast.

So the question is: what is the meaning of this painful experience?

! Humans have a natural tendency to believe that their own agency determines the outcomes which befall them. This gives us the illusion of power and control. Thus, my first thought is: What did I do to cause this? Obviously, I went biking on the Green Valley Road, where cyclists can get hit by cars.

! A second natural tendency is to believe in “learning experiences,” “teachable moments.” The obvious lesson here is that I should be more prudent. But what if I am already very prudent? I ride safely, I always wear a helmet, I never ride my bike at night. The only way to be more careful is to no longer go out on such roads, and to stay on bike trails with few or no automobiles.

! There is also the widespread belief that we gain strength and wisdom from adversity. This is called rationalization. I can assure you that I did not gain strength from this accident!

! Then there are those - this gets really silly - who feel that they deserve pain. They feel guilty. They feel that misfortune is their just punishment. Even though I am Jewish and I was raised Catholic, I am not aware of harboring such feelings - unless they are subconscious.

! Related to the last two, above, is the notion of “test,” - God, or someone, is testing you. The story of Job, sort of. An equally absurd theory.

! Another thing people say is, ”it could have been worse.” True, cyclists get killed every day. But should I consider myself lucky for having been practically run over, even though I lived?

! I had another theory: I recently received a chain letter - you know, the kind which says that if you don’t forward it, bad luck will befall you, and if you do, you’ll make a million. Well, I did forward it. And look what happened! This is called superstition.

! A more intelligent observation: Each year, slightly over 700 cyclists are killed on US roads, and 52,000 are injured. I have been road biking for many years, going out for a fifty-miler at least twice a week. This week, the statistical probabilities finally caught up with me.

! My final point is the most meaningful one: When taking into account population size and biking frequency, the US rate of bicycle deaths and injuries is six times higher than in the Netherlands. Granted, Holland is THE most bicycle-friendly country in the world. Still, the US is relatively bicycle-unfriendly. Bicycling in America is dangerous, and something should be done about this (See Sam McManis’ articles in the Sacramento Bee, January 30) Sorry for the America-bashing, guys, but this is a reasonable argument.

So what does my accident mean? Most of all, it means that shit happens. It would be nice if biking here were as safe as it is in Holland, but it isn’t. So there is no lesson. No teaching moment. No self-blame. No superstition. No meaning. No guilt. No fury against God. Just statistics and bad luck.leave comment here