In the year my wife and I returned to Chicago from my stint as an East Coast college professor, we encountered a surprising November snowfall. I remember heading for work on the morning after the Thursday evening whitening of the autumn world.
We lived in an apartment building located in the city’s Northwest corner. My work-a-day routine was always the same. I drove the half-block west from Summerdale toward a dependable stop sign. It never failed to be on the job.
The speed limit on the perpendicular road ahead was 35 miles an hour. I needed to take care and look for a break in the traffic before making a 90 degree right turn.
The snow said otherwise.
My sedan skidded as I approached the stopping place and knifed forward. No stop, no checking for other cars, just a horrifying bolt into no-man’s land.
Nothing happened, no other vehicles. I reached the opposite side of the thoroughfare feeling hugely lucky. Not only in the conventional sense but “morally lucky.”
What does that mean?
Though I didn’t exceed the required pace as I neared the STOP, the law argues I was going too fast “for conditions.”
Yes, I could have been injured, perhaps killed. Yes, I could have done the same to someone else.
What is less obvious is a hypothetical responsibility. A typical reaction to my story lacks the unfortunate ending to call the thought to mind. No harm, no moral implications. This is as much or as little as we think about it.
But what if my misguided missile shot into the intersection and killed someone? Then, I guarantee you, blame enters the theater. Then, part of the human race says I was irresponsible or careless. “He should have known better.”
I’d not disparage those who judged me in the lethal version of the incident. Indeed, I can’t find any unfairness in finger-wagging at a less than 100% irresponsibility or carelessness on my part. I drove the car, and the license allowing me the privilege demanded I do better.
Please understand, I’m sure no one would think of my behavior in moral terms, good or bad, but for bodily injury to another. Without an accident, the label “lucky” alone applies.
I offer this meditation on an everyday occurrence to reveal two things:
- Human well-being, positive or negative, turns on incidents like this.
- The judgment rendered by that same humanity rests on many such accidents or their absence.
But it is even more complicated.
Are you inclined to fault a person born under different conditions than your own who becomes a drug addict, a criminal, or a vagrant? Does the place you and the other land on the first day of life alter your chances of being a “good” person?
Is this not another version of the slippery street and the happenstance of a late-night snowfall? Is this not akin to my ramming someone or entering an empty boulevard?
Most of us applaud the hard work, resilience, or wisdom we possess, pointing to such qualities when explaining our relative “success.”
I encourage everyone to reflect with gratitude on the genetic lottery’s part in predetermined advantageous physical, emotional, and intellectual gifts. Thank God if you choose.
You and I are among the morally lucky some of the time. Who might any of us have become in another setting? With other parents or in a different country?
For myself, on another day, or a minute earlier or later, I might have caused another’s death driving along as I did.
The images are the work of Laura Hedien with her permission: Laura Hedien Official Website. The first is called Metra Train Platform, 8/20. The second is an Alaska Road Sign, 2021.