Every morning, I hunt for my mobile phone in the last seconds of the mad dash out the door to elementary school. Most days, we’ve brushed my daughter’s hair, though some days, we haven’t. Most days, I’m dressed in house clothes— somewhere between pajamas and gym clothes. Most days, we’re running late: just a little early, but not too early, all the way to when we pull up, I instruct my daughter to run like the wind.
Ever since my older kid started attending elementary some nine years ago, I began to notice that almost every single day, the flag is at half staff. Often we have little idea why. That’s the new normal. Tragedies get caught in whirlwinds. We can’t be united by them if we don’t even know about them.
Less than a month ago, driving back from the store, I pulled up to a busy traffic circle a couple of miles from my house and found myself behind an accident that had just happened. Men stood, looking concerned, outside their cars, talking to the driver of a sedan. I got out of the car to see if I could help. From a safe distance, I could tell that things were modestly under control. The driver, a woman, sat stunned in the driver’s seat, head tilted down. The impact had triggered the car’s airbags, which hung like odd, dingy curtains. No one was on their phone.
I walked back to my car and dialed 911, reported the accident, said that I thought they needed an ambulance. I got back out to look once again at the driver, to report their condition to the 911 operator, and realized that no, the driver was a man. How did I not see that before? What my mind had read and then re-read was different.
I got outside and directed traffic around the accident.
It took seven minutes for the ambulance to arrive. It was, after all, rush hour. Still, I was surprised. How did it take that long? What if the accident had been worse?
As soon as the ambulance arrived, a fire truck and police car followed. I got back into my car, passing the scene, and drove home.
A month later, I still can’t quite get a few things out of my head. First, that no one called 911. Sure, the driver wasn’t dead, but they also did not seem ok. Second, of the six or so cars who stopped, why did no one else have the immediate instinct to direct traffic around the accident? I kept having visions of someone on autopilot not perceiving the situation from afar and then braking too late, compounding the accident. A pile up. And third, why did it take so long for an ambulance to arrive?
I told a friend of mine who had been a cop long ago about it, and she said she wasn’t surprised it took a long time for the ambulance to come. She said she remembered often arriving first on a scene to find a DOT. What’s a DOT, I asked? Dead over there, she replied. In other words, too late. Expired.
I don’t know what I had expected.
Actually, I do know what I had expected. I had expected that everyone would act rationally in an emergency. And what I saw was that regardless of whether they could have, they didn’t. It shook me to my core.
You see, every morning when I make sure that I have my phone on me as I drive the seven blocks to the school through the suburban neighborhood between us and the school, I feel kind of foolish. Like the kind of person who doesn’t step on a crack in the sidewalk. Superstitious. A little neurotic.
I find my compulsion neurotic.
And yet, it isn’t, is it?
Maybe it’s more neurotic to not see the world as morally ambivalent. Especially now.
Accidents happen, as they say. Our human brains like to trick us into thinking that everything will go as usual. Our brains are on screen saver mode, our routes and daily images sliding in our encoded alphabetical order. A, B, C. Here, then there, then here. This, that, this.
I’m not saying that we should be prepared always for a catastrophe. As if that was something within our power to predict or prepare for.
But what I’m also saying is that when accidents and catastrophes occur, we assume that we will react in ways that are logical. Predictable? Useful?
I have certain statistics I can recite by heart from my work advocating for common sense gun legislation. Police— people whose job it is to react under duress— only hit their intended targets in a confrontational situation about 30% of the time. And that’s the HIGH statistic. Most departments report rates of around 15%.
FIFTEEN PERCENT OF THE TIME, when a police officer shoots their weapon to contain a suspect, they hit the person or target. That is to say, 85% of the time, they fail.
Now I’m not picking on police officers here— imagine what the percentage would be for untrained people like you or I. Or your run-of-the-mill gun owner. This idea that a good person with a gun will stop a bad person with a gun just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Yet so many people in this country are convinced not only that it is true in general, but that they in specific will have the capability to respond correctly in the situation.
Adrenaline is a powerful, strange substance, friends.
Remember the accident I came upon? It wasn’t even the worst case scenario. And yet, I misjudged the gender of the driver and even some of their physical attributes. Others were not reacting to the physical realities of the accident in a way that was commensurate with what happened. When accidents happen, adrenaline kicks in. People who are severely injured internally can present as modestly injured or confused. You cannot trust their answers.
And more wholly, no one seemed to react appropriately to the entire situation— a traffic circle where four roads enter and exit being partially blocked, with traffic approaching going 35-40mph, with obscured views.
And an ambulance that arrived seven minutes after one person decided to call 911.
We assume that we will act in rational or productive ways.
We won’t. It’s not that we can’t, but most often, we won’t. Our vision is partial and tunnel— that’s what creates accidents. It’s also what keeps us from going insane to the endless possibilities for failure and danger in every situation. It’s an adaptation that works until it quite horrifically doesn’t.
As humans, we overestimate our own capability to control, perceive, and act. And that, in cases where it’s relatively clear that it is an emergency. On a scale that would make sense for our daily interactions.
What, then, of emergencies of scale? When the variables are so great, and the number of actors so uncountable? What of emergencies that unfold slowly, over time? That we are warned of again and again? Emergencies of increment?
To put it bluntly, humans are bad at those. We are relatively bad at long-term planning. We rely on long-term thinking tools like written words and books and calendars and programs to remind us of our steps and goals to planning for and alleviating the worsening of a situation. But make no mistake— we’re bad at it.
Just like drug addicts often have to hit “bottom,” it’s humanity’s nature to only react to immediacy, because that is when peril becomes most apparent. Foreshadowing might spook us, but only with confirmable outside conditions that are dire enough to signal impending catastrophe. And for many systems— like our environment— once we get to that point, it’s too late.
Part of me wonders if that’s not the case, as well, for our democracy in the United States. I see a lot of people (myself included) reacting with due anxiety and immediacy towards the current political atmosphere. But realistically, I don’t think we’re frightened enough. Or that enough of us are frightened enough to make the radical changes we need to in order to right the ship.
And that’s because we’ve let ourselves go lax and squishy. Part of me thinks that many people believe that if we can just get rid of this president, if we can just elect better politicians, that we will be ok. That we can turn things around. That we can— in some way— go back to a more comfortable reality.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe that is the case. I think a lot of what we see now in our political figures and in the state of almost every system we have is just a symptom, and not the disease. And the same of climate change. I don’t trust that one storm or two storms will make us suddenly realize the impending catastrophe. Our systems aren’t learning because we aren’t learning. And because those whose investment in the status quo are so empowered, they can make up stories that appeal to people’s short-term thinking and make those stories so pervasive and easy to consume that they are not easily disarmed.
I’m not sure what the holistic approach is to fighting on all these fronts. And honestly, I don’t believe the holistic approach will work without a solid rock wall of impediment. An intervention which is fierce and unmoveable. There’s a reason why strongmen and budding autocracies stage disruptive events. They trigger our collective immune system into avoidance. The question is, at this point— what will get to us first? The accident of our own creation, or the accident of others’ orchestration? And will we even have the skill or wherewithal to perceive it and act.
In case of emergency, break glass. But if the glass is already broken, then what?