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A fender bender and the fall

Issue: "Unholy matrimony," Feb. 13, 1999

It was among the most common of traffic accidents. As I exited the expressway just a couple of miles from home, I came to a full stop at the top of the ramp, looked both ways, and then started turning right. But a speeding white sedan caught my eye to the left, and I decided to wait for it to pass. That's when I remember the unwelcome and ugly thud from behind.

It wasn't a serious accident. But I was a little dazed, and still remember looking in the rearview mirror to see if whatever had hit me was coming at me again. As I unfastened my seat belt to get out of the car, an unseemly thought pervaded my foggy brain: "Don't," I told myself fuzzily, "do anything stupid."

And then I proceeded immediately to do something stupid. The woman whose big sports utility vehicle had clobbered my little Subaru was already bargaining: "Do you really think we need to call the police?" she asked. "Don't you think we can just exchange basic information and settle later?" Dumb me; I agreed-even while calculating quickly that repairs on my 12-year-old Subaru would easily exceed its value. A simple accident that wasn't my fault meant now that I'd have to say goodbye to the car that for several years I had considered such a good driving bargain.

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Indeed, my main struggle for the next few days wasn't with physical injuries. I did check myself into the emergency room at St. Joseph's Hospital, but the doctor said my aches and pains were exactly what might be expected from a sharp rear-end collision. After a few tests, he pronounced me relatively free of neurological disorders-which I suppose, if he'd been willing to expand his evaluation to all my mental processes, should have made my week. But Pilate-like, he wouldn't alter what he had written.

Instead, what really bothered me-and still does-was my need to run that awful gauntlet of "playing the game" that is so much a part of our complex lives these days. Why is it so hard just to leap out of a smashed car and exclaim gallantly: "Hey, folks! Whatever happened, let's be fair to each other. Let's pursue justice." But no, even when you don't really want to, you have to cover your behind.

So, like we're all compelled to do these days, I found myself thinking altogether defensively: Defensively toward this woman in the big SUV, defensively toward the police, defensively toward the doctor in the emergency room, defensively toward the woman's insurance company, defensively toward my insurance company, and defensively toward the body shop and its almost certainly excessive estimate. The Golden Rule wasn't near the top of my priority list. "Don't," I had reminded myself groggily as she drove away in the rain, "do anything else dumb."

Even now, a few days later, I find myself calculating every move-and hating myself for not being a little more trusting. Why can't we let our yea be yea and our nay be nay, even out on the highways of life? Why do we always need proof? Why does everything have to be in writing?

Instead, after kicking myself for not immediately calling the police, I headed next for the police station to report what had happened. That's where I discovered I might now even be liable for a misdemeanor for not having reported my accident! Suspicions and worries started rolling through my foggy brain: What if right this minute she's off getting her vehicle repaired so she can deny she was even involved? What if there's no "Valiant Insurance Company"-the name she had given me? What if I have to pay for this myself? What if it puts points on my driving record, and my insurance rates go up for three more years?

I didn't want to play games, but here I was being tempted to play games with everyone. How could I tell the truth about what had happened, and still not make myself liable for the costs of a simple little circumstance that had invaded my Saturday afternoon-a circumstance I had done nothing to bring about?

"In Adam's fall, we sinned all," said the famous old New England Primer as on its very first page it buttressed its teaching of the alphabet with robust theology. And indeed, from A to Z in all of life, nothing has escaped the heavy touch of brokenness, ugliness, and suspicion.

In Kosovo, in Baghdad, in Washington, D.C., and last week at the intersection of I-240 and Fairview Road here in Asheville, N.C., there was enough brokenness-and cynicism-to go around. But that's only from a human perspective. From God's point of view, his redemption is still underway. I was reminded of that when the woman with the SUV called to say she was pursuing things with her insurance company, and was sorry for all the inconvenience.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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