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[Chalice] By Accident [Chalice]

Presented March 10, 2013, by Steve Wiegenstein

Listen to a recording of "By Accident"
24:41 minutes -- 9.89 MB -- By Accident .mp3 file.

Opening words -- W. Somerset Maugham

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw Death standing in the crowd. And he came to Death and said, "Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?" "That was not a threatening gesture," Death said, "it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

Words for Meditation
From Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell

We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds. But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia.

Reading for the Service
from the Unetanneh Tokef, 13th Century:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!

From the modern re-imagining of the Unetanneh Tokef by poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen:

And who by fire? Who by water? Who in the sunshine? Who in the night time? Who by brave assent? Who by accident? Who in solitude? Who in this mirror? And who shall I say is calling?

The great English literary figure Samuel Johnson is quoted as saying, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." In that case, I think most of us have had our minds concentrated a few times, although most of us don't have the luxury of a fortnight's meditation.

Let me give you a few examples from my own life. When I was a youngster, I took long solo hikes for recreation, and one day I found myself about halfway up a bluff that I had decided to climb. With the lack of foresight that is so typical of the young, I had started up the bluff without thinking through the path to the top, and that day I reached a spot about sixty feet in the air, hanging onto the rocks and tree roots, with no handhold farther up. Unfortunately, I couldn't see below myself either, though I knew I had stuck my toe into a crevice in the rocks to get where I was. So to get back down, I had to grope my way back blindly, feeling for the toehold. I recall that before I did so, I looked back over my shoulder at the valley below. The river was beautiful in the clear light of day, and I remember thinking that if I fell from the bluff, at least I would at least have had the chance to see that sight. It wasn't much consolation.

Then when I was in my 20s, driving in my 1966 Plymouth Belvedere on my way to my summer job, a tire blew out on a sharp curve and I slid backward across the oncoming lane, knocked down a road sign and spun back into my own lane, pointing the right direction again. I stopped to make sure the car was driveable, then continued on to work. But once I got there, I was shaking so badly that I couldn't work and went home for the rest of the day. I didn't have any big moments of clarity with that incident -- the only thing that I recall is the oddly deep sound the road sign made as my rear passenger door clobbered it.

I am not trying to make the point that I am accident prone. Quite the opposite, in fact. My starting point is that like all of us here, I have had my share of near-misses with mortality or serious injury. Many of us here have not escaped those appointments in Samarra. I still recall, years ago, when we learned that Gail Starkey had lost her life on Highway 24. Such moments mark us forever. They are those moments when life takes an irrevocable turn, and we feel the sharp edge that is always lurking beneath the surface at every moment, ready to rip right through the fabric that barely covers it. The possibility of loss -- permanent, devastating loss, not just temporary harm or inconvenience -- is always there. We walk though our days only dimly aware of it until something like this happens, and then we either sigh with relief at our good fortune, and forget about it after a few days, or we try our best to mend that torn fabric, knowing that there will always be stitches and patches in our worn lives from that point on.

A couple more: In November 2010, I had decided to clean out the gutters on a Saturday afternoon, a day before I was scheduled to come up here to speak at church, in fact. I placed the ladder on the sidewalk leading into the house, because I wanted to be careful -- uneven ground can create such a tippy experience when you're seven or eight feet up. But I had outsmarted myself, because the sidewalk was slick from the previous day's rain, and just when I reached the gutter the ladder gave way, sending both it and me to the ground in a great crash.

Then earlier this year, as I was crossing the street on my way back to work from lunch, a distracted driver lurched out and flattened me in the crosswalk at the stopsign between my parking lot and my building.

In both cases, I did what I think anybody would, as I lay on the ground in considerable pain. I cussed. And then I wiggled my feet just to make sure I could. In the wake of an accident, you are reminded that the basics matter - movement, sentience, bodily integrity. In my experience, life does not go into slow motion during an accident, the way it does in the movies. In fact, I was surprised at just how quickly a person goes from the roof to the ground.

Since unpleasant experiences are supposed to teach us something, I've been reflecting on mine to see if any tidbits can be drawn out of them. And here is what I've settled on.

First, accidents are a kind of universal leveler. They happen to us all. They are part of the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to," as Hamlet says. As I said, I don't consider myself accident-prone, or particularly reckless, but I was able to come up with four instances in my life when my existence was genuinely in danger. And I suspect that everybody here today could do the same. Our presence in this room is the product of an immense chain of circumstances -- call it fate or call it luck -- that could easily have gone another direction and left us missing, or missing an absent member, or unaware of that member's brief existence. I don't want to get all "It's a Wonderful Life" on you here, but it's a fact that the world could very easily be doing without any one of us right now. I find this fact both sobering and exhilarating.

And all without Clarence the angel. In an earlier era, I might have attributed my survival of these various mishaps to Divine Providence, and enjoyed the idea that God was saving me for some future purpose. It's comforting to think that, but unfortunately, accepting that premise also means accepting its opposite -- that those who do not luck out when their tire blows are somehow chosen by God for extermination. The logic of the one demands the other, and that's just not a universe I want to live in. You still hear this primitive version of a tribal God every time a tornado goes through. Tornadoes are the great natural accident, destroying one house while leaving the neighbor's, blasting one city while sparing another, and it's natural to look for the hand of God in it all. Perhaps this is just my theological naivete at work, but I cannot imagine a divine being who would pick us out on purpose to be spared or devastated by a blunt instrument like a tornado, fire or flood. I know our insurance policy calls them "Acts of God," but really.

Or you can imagine an impersonal God who acts essentially like the Fates, meting out our destiny with divine disregard for our personal merit. Or something like the God of the Unetannah Tokef, who knows of and dispenses our various miseries, but can be moved, perhaps, through acts of goodness. But honestly, the whole notion of a supernatural force who oversees whether I make it across the street or not, whether personally, impersonally, or whimsically, is something I just can't buy.

The alternative, however, seems equally uninviting -- a world in which random chance rules, and our lives are subject to universal indifference. This is the world of Stephen Crane's great short story, "The Open Boat," in which the shipwrecked sailors endlessly scheme, discuss, plan strategy, and comment on their fortunes until the moment comes when their lifeboat finally reaches the shore, and some are lost and some survive through nothing more than simple chance. I would like to think we can steer a middle ground between these two extremes.

First, let's remember that it is in our power to avoid accidents to some extent. Not that we should never take risks, but there is a level of common sense and prudence that we owe ourselves and our loved ones. I now make sure that I have eye contact with the driver as I cross at my crosswalk, even if he is completely stopped. Another recollection I have from my younger days is that my father would occasionally have the task of delivering the monthly safety presentation at the factory where he worked. He would bring home the National Safety Council films, and we would review them, marveling at the idiocy of people who used aluminum ladders while working on three-phase electric lines, failed to attach their harnesses while clearing ice from the roof of a four-story building, or tried to bypass the safety features of a piece of machinery in order to save time. So my first resolution in trying to avoid becoming the next subject of an NSC film is to use the simple prudence I've been given to minimize risk. That's a simple gift we can give our loved ones. Fans of the old TV show "Hill Street Blues" may remember Sergeant Esterhaus' recurring tag line, "Let's be careful out there," and those words are a good reminder to us all.

And yet -- no one ever expects the accident. And the accident you prepare for is not necessarily the one that happens. Accidents are the visible index of the fact that we really can't control our fates, not completely, maybe not even much. So ultimately our response to them has to include a degree of acceptance, not in the passive it-must-be-God's-will sense, but rather as part of our ticket to existence. An accident is Nature's way of saying, "Pay attention. Look around yourself. You are not permanent. Focus on and appreciate this moment, because it was not yours to claim. Accept your condition."

And with that acceptance comes something else -- gratitude. Not for the accidents! I'm not that cheerful. Whatever life lessons I gained from falling off the roof or being hit by a car could just as easily have been learned by gentler means, and I would be just as enlightened and a lot less sore. The gratitude is for having survived them up to now. Seen from that perspective, the fact that we have all made it to this point in our lives, and that we have all made it here, today, all of us here together, is its own little miracle. As e.e. cummings writes in the reading we so often use at this time of the year, "I thank you god for this most amazing day," and the thing to remember is that this most amazing day could be any day, and it is today.

Closing Words
from the Unetanneh Tokef

A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream. But You are the King, the Living and Enduring God. There is no set span to Your years and there is no end to the length of Your days. It is impossible to estimate the angelic chariots of Your glory and to elucidate Your Name's inscrutability. Your Name is worthy of You and You are worthy of Your Name, and You have included Your Name in our name.

©2013 Steve Wiegenstein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegenstein, Steve 2013. By Accident, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20130310.shtml (accessed December 11, 2018).

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