Knowing What Time It Is

It is hard to accept the implications of scary, unexpected things

I was driving home one Wednesday evening in the early 1980's with my wife and two kids in the car.  It was dusk, that time of the day where the dark is affecting your vision but before your headlamps had really started helping you to see. I was on a four lane commercial road in the lane closest to the center of the road.

As I was traveling along I suddenly caught a momentary glimpse of a horrifying sight. A woman was standing in semi-darkness in the lane next to mine, with on-coming traffic headed directly for her. She was perhaps 100 feet in front of me in the on-coming lane to my left. Before I reached her location an on-coming car struck her full force without braking.  It was obvious that the driver couldn't or didn't see her. If she had been in my lane I would have hit her too.  The force of the car hitting her at 40 miles-per-hour was such that she flew into the air about 20 feet, coming down to crash onto the roof of the moving car that hit her as it moved along underneath her angle of flight.  She rolled off the roof and collapsed in a heap onto the pavement.

At this point, the driver of the car that hit her freaked out utterly, wrenching his wheel to the left which sent him careening into my lane, directly toward the driver's side of my car. Instinctively I pulled hard right and weaved wide out of my lane, preventing a collision with the other driver, then I immediately pulled a u-turn into the parking lot on the left-hand side of the road.  As I was pulling the u-turn, the driver who had hit the woman crossed 2 more lanes coming to a stop as he hit a pole on the opposite side of the road.

All of this, my seeing the woman at the last second, the driver hitting her, careening toward me, my reaction to avoid the collision, all of it happened in a time window of perhaps 10-15 seconds.

I pulled into a parking spot and jumped out of my car and started running toward the street where the woman was lying in a heap. I actually have no functioning memory from the moment the woman rolled off the top of the car onto the street and the when I started running toward the street.  I think the shock of what I had seen sort of blanked my memory over the next few seconds.  I only know about avoiding the collision and the u-turn into the parking lot because my wife told me about it later.

As I ran toward the street, I sort of came to myself and I have a distinct memory of a mental conversation that took place in my head.  There was a side of me that didn't want to run out to that woman and render aid.  I kept looking around the parking lot thinking surely someone else would go out there and do something. But as I ran toward the street, I could see several people standing there staring into the street, but no one was making a move in her direction. By this time maybe 25 seconds had passed since I first saw the woman standing in the lane with oncoming traffic.

I kept running and, when I got to the woman, the first thing I did was wave my arms at the on-coming traffic to prevent both of us from being run over, in her case for a second time.  When I bent down to see what I could do, her eyes were open and fixed.  She had a weak heartbeat and was shallow breathing. There was no significant external bleeding taking place. Someone brought a blanket with the idea of keeping her warm, but not long after the ambulance arrived they covered her up completely since she ultimately died there in the road.

We learned later that she was an elderly woman who lived in the apartments across the street. She had gone for groceries and on her way back to her apartment became disoriented and confused. She had stopped in the road trying to reorient herself where she was struck by the car.

As I was the only witness, besides the driver of the vehicle that struck her, the police who responded to the scene asked me a lot of questions. I stood on the side of the road talking with the police for a while and they asked me to come down to the station to give a complete statement regarding what I had seen.

I sent my wife and kids home and got in the back seat of the police car and and was surprised to find they had the driver of the vehicle that hit the woman in the back seat with me.  He was utterly wrecked. He was sobbing and almost incoherent.  I rode back there with him to the police station and gave them my statement. Among other things I told them that if she had been in my lane it was highly likely that I would have been the one to hit her.  The visibility was just that bad, and her presence there so unexpected.  I was blanked by the visceral sense that night that "there but for the grace of God go I".

While I was at the police station, my wife got a strange call from our pastor. It turns out that someone from a local news station shot video of me talking with the police, and on the 10 o'clock news showed that video with the caption "A young man driving in the 4400 block of Alameda struck and killed a woman who was crossing the street."  So all of our friends, who watched the news, started calling our pastor in a panic and he gently reached out to my wife to confirm whether I had indeed killed someone that night.   This was my first exposure to the incompetence of the press, though I have had much more opportunity since then to witness the widespread sloppiness and indifference to accuracy that characterizes so many of them.

I write all of this because, in a few unexpected seconds, entire lives were changed. One woman's life was ended.  One driver's life was scarred forever. I was certainly changed by those events though not to the degree of the direct participants.

And the thing I have found is that coming to grips, in the actual traumatic moment, with the implications and import of what is happening around you, is really really hard.  I have been through numerous life-changing events - deaths, illnesses, being uniquely placed to take on responsibilities that I was very reluctant to take on, the need to intervene in a violent confrontation, and I'm afraid many other situations if I ever had the stomach to sit down to tally it all up.  In every one of these circumstances I have observed a very human propensity to favor denial over coming to grips with the actual momentousness of the events.  I have found the pull toward denial is especially strong whenever the act of acknowledging the momentousness of events entails upon me some moral obligation to take an action that I would rather not take.

As I've gotten older and observed more of these kinds of events, I have found The Lord of the Rings to be ever more resonant with my own meditations.  The Hobbits were caught up in events and found themselves bearing unwanted responsibilities that they would never have expected to bear.  

"I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened," Frodo said. But he nevertheless knew, in some essential way, the gravity of what he had been caught up in.

The ability to perceive the moral and practical implications that are embedded within a moment of crisis is to possess a kind of moral understanding akin to knowing what time it is.  It is the knowledge, under duress, of how what's happening in the moment fits within some larger and even more important context.

Lately I have started suspecting that the problem of knowing what time it is, in the midst of a crisis, explains some of the turmoil and acrimony within a variety of conservative communities, both political and religious.  It boils down to a dispute between those who think there is little left to "conserve" and those who believe "the institutions" continue to be worthy of respect.  Some conservatives think that retaining respect for "the institutions" is the true task of conservatism.  Others think the institutions, as we know them, are more like false store fronts on a movie set, acting as nothing more than a shadowy memory of something that is no longer actually there.

What time is it?

Many of the legacy, clubbish Republicans, especially in the Senate, along with no small number of (mostly) Never-Trump pundits (e.g. David French, Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg, etc.) all seem to perceive our current moment as a mere incremental continuation of a decades-long plodding debate between the left and the right over this or that legislation or policy prescription.  They were appalled that someone who was not a member of the club, whose effrontery won him the presidential nomination, was not as inclined to venerate the institutions as they thought proper for someone who sat in the oval office. One suspects that they may have found his boorishness more off-putting than his actual views.  They probably didn't object to his governance so much as his personal style. But the larger point is that they entirely misunderstood the reasons for his electoral success, and what that success telegraphed about the electorate's attitude toward legacy Republicans.

There are other people who, looking at our current moment - the corruption of the law enforcement agencies in the federal government, the winking and not-so-subtle encouragement of rioters and vandals, the open and brazen lying and corruption of public officials and the press, the suppression of free speech - think the time is late and, more to the point, that American institutions are largely gone. They have the sense that what we once knew and viewed with affection have become monstrous chimeras of what they once were. If you have ever had the sad task of observing how drug addiction can reduce a warm human being into a maniacal, raging, embodied appetite, you will have a sense for how some on the right have come to perceive "the institutions" that the legacy Republicans want us all to continue respecting.

My own sense is that our situation is dire, and that a kind of mass delusion has taken hold of many people who have their hands on the levers of power. I find it hard to conceive of any naturalistic explanations for the synchronization and timing of these widespread delusions.  So many people seem to have gone crazy at once.

Because I fail to perceive naturalistic explanations, I unsurprisingly conclude that there are no naturalistic solutions. The words of Jesus, "that kind of spirit can only be forced out by prayer", are often found rattling around inside my head these days.  Political machinations may be entirely inadequate to our current moment. Prayer, and lots of it, may be our only hope.

I suspect it is the suddenness of the cascade of craziness which has made it difficult for many to process the implications. The shock and - more to my point - the disbelief contained within my own instinctive reaction when I saw the woman hit by the car, may explain the wildly divergent views we see about what time it really is.  It's just so hard to accept such unexpected and traumatic changes to our comfortable, historical assumptions.

The essential mistake the legacy Republicans make is persisting in their belief that Trump is the cause and not merely a symptom of the current crisis.

The strategy of going back to the old days by destroying Donald J. Trump is doomed to failure because **even if it succeeds** the factors which stoked the 2016 rebellion still obtain and even more so. Restoring the economy, cooling the ideology and limiting corruption are all that can work. - Richard Fernandez

Either people like Richard Fernandez are right, or David French is. We can't have it both ways.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

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