The Scene of the Accident

In moments of shock we might find that we are suddenly free of our habitual ways of perceiving. These are moments when we might readily tap into our inherent goodness.

Karen Kissel Wegela
13 October 2017
Photo by Charles Wagner.

In moments of shock we might find that we are suddenly free of our habitual ways of perceiving. These are moments when we might readily tap into our inherent goodness.

A few days ago I was in a line of traffic waiting to make a left turn. There was a car in front of me and two others were behind me. It was bitterly cold, the road was icy, and everywhere the landscape was filled with steamy clouds rising from the ground. Suddenly I was jolted forward by a hard knock from the back. My car lurched into the one in front of me. My books flew off the seat next to me onto the floor. My water bottle went flying. I had a fleeting thought about airbags not opening, and then it was over.

When I looked up, a woman in a bright red sweater was approaching from the car in front of me. In my rearview mirror I could see a vehicle close behind me. I got out of the car.

“I don’t see any damage on my car, and yours looks okay too,” the woman in the red sweater called as she made her way carefully toward me over the slick pavement. When she arrived, she threw her arms around me in a hug. “Oh!” she sighed. “Are you all right?”

I was shaking all over: my arms, my face, my chest, my legs. My mind had slowed down, and I noticed the cold on my cheeks, my breath as it billowed out into the air, and the warm brown eyes and wild dark hair of the woman who had just hugged me.

“Thanks,” I said. “That’s really good.” Her hug was warm and earthy, and I was grateful for it. I was also surprised, and even a little shocked, by her warmth.

Then I looked behind me and saw a young man emerging from his small pickup truck. He was perhaps 19 or 20. He looked at the spot where his truck was smack up against my back bumper. His eyes behind his oval-shaped wire-rims were wide. “Would you like a hug too?” I asked.

“Oh yeah!” he said with a small smile. I gave him a big hug, our bulky parkas enveloping us. The red-sweatered woman joined and the three of us formed a knot of humanity on the side of the busy road where the accident had taken place. It was a moment of great sweetness.

Soon the other woman left, since there was no damage for her to be concerned about. There was some minor damage to my car and quite a bit more to the pickup truck. “I’ve never been in an accident before,” the young man told me. “What do we do now?” I invited him to sit in my car which was still running and warm. We used my car phone to find out what we needed to do, and we traded the necessary information. “My mom is coming tomorrow,” he told me. “I’m from Hawaii.”

“I’m still shaking,” I told him.

“Me too. I’m usually so mentally macho, but I’m still feeling scared,” he confided.

I felt so connected to this stranger. We shook hands as he gathered himself to leave. “I enjoyed meeting you,” I said, meaning it but aware of how odd it might sound. “I’m sorry it had to be this way.” He smiled and nodded in agreement.

As I drove away I was aware of a tremendous sense of well-being, even though I was still somewhat shaken. The rest of the day I was more open than I usually am and felt patient even with the slow moving traffic and the Christmas shopping crowds.

I found myself thinking about this accident and the people I had shared it with. At one level I felt appreciation for the preciousness of life. The accident had, of course, reminded me of the fragility and impermanence of life. At another level, I was touched by the openness of both of the other people. We had cut through everything extra and simply connected with each other. I was also grateful for the sweetness. I have been involved in other traffic mishaps and more often than not it is anger or irritation, rather than sweetness, which gets displayed.

In the Buddhist tradition, moments of shock are recognized as times when we might find that we are suddenly free of our habitual ways of perceiving ourselves, others and the environment. They are times when we might readily tap into our inherent goodness or “brilliant sanity,” as it’s known in contemplative psychotherapy.

Yet we often respond to such moments by pulling back from their vividness and openness. We might push them away with irritation, impatience, fear or anxiety. We might become speedy and busy or get dull and spaced out. Most often we do something to get away from the novel experience and try to get back into our familiar, habitual mind. But that’s not what happened this time.

I think it was the generous hug from the red-sweatered woman, whose name I never learned, that set the tone. Her open-heart- edness just melted me. As she left, she said she was off to read stories to children, and she didn’t want to be late. “Lucky children,” I thought, “to have such a reader.” The action of this one person had transmuted the whole incident.

Years ago my housemate worked at EPS (Emergency Psychiatric Services) at the local mental health center. I used to marvel that she could do this difficult work. When I asked her about it, she told me that one of the things she really loved about it was being with people in crisis. They were so open, she said. “I can really see their goodness, their hearts.” Often they were frightened, but their usual habits and defenses had broken down. Their usual ways of doing things were no longer working: that was exactly why they were in crisis. They were, many times, available in a way that was unusual and rare. Such moments, she told me, were precious. They woke her up and reminded her of what really mattered to her.

It is exactly in moments of crisis that what we do may be most useful and effective. Sometimes we may think that if we could only get things back to “normal,” then we could do some real work. We may be tempted to wait until someone is feeling “better” to speak to them. But paradoxically, it is often when things are falling apart and are at their most unreliable that we can connect most easily with others and really hear and be heard.

Karen Kissel Wegela

Karen Kissel Wegela

Karen Kissel Wegela, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice and a professor in Naropa University’s MA Contemplative Psychotherapy and Buddhist Psychology department. Her most recent book is Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials: Enriching Your Practice with Buddhist Psychology.