Our Subaru Forrester was sliding sideways down Interstate 80 at fifty miles per hour. My wife, Nan, had gingerly switched to the left-hand lane to avoid a truck that was overturned on the right shoulder, but no amount of skill or caution was sufficient to overcome the conspiracy of mass and momentum on a nearly frictionless surface. In an instant, we’d lost traction on the icy highway. I figured that once we hit the grassy median, we might roll, but with seatbelts and airbags we’d survive. I had time to analyze our chances because the whole event seemed to be unfolding in slow motion. As we slid into the median we didn’t roll. We didn’t even slow down. The sleet had glazed the grass so that we skated over 60 feet of frozen ground and headed across the oncoming lanes.
A semi-truck was barreling toward us. I could see the driver and the silver bulldog hood ornament. I rationalized that if we might just ricochet off the chrome grill, like a hockey puck bouncing off the boards. Of course, a head-on collision would have been fatal, but I was blessedly unable to grasp my own mortality in the interminable moments as the gap closed. I winced and braced—and then came the bang.
We flattened the reflector post on the far side of the highway as the truck roared by on our right. The Subaru tilted hard to the left then rocked to stillness. My calm detachment gave way to terror and relief. We’d cheated death by a few feet. However, it took days before I understood the gift that had been given to me.
The gift was not that of having lived. Nor did I see survival as some sort of cosmic message about my having yet to fulfill a mysterious purpose. Rather, the physics of the world on that day disinterestedly unfolded in our favor. Not because we were special, or good, or called to something great but because when you roll the dice sometimes you get lucky. There was no greater power to thank. The meaning of the experience was for me to make.
There is no guiding hand of God shoving Subarus onto the shoulders of icy roads, but that does not mean there is no purpose to my life. I am embedded in an intractably complex world that provides me with the raw material from which I am free to craft gifts and make meaning. Gifts that are as authentic as being alive and meaning that is as real as an oncoming truck.
So, when I am trying to decide whether to take a day off to be with my family, whether there is time to have lunch with a colleague or whether a neighbor needs a hand clearing his yard after a windstorm—all of which came up in the last couple of weeks—what do I do? I open my gifts.
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