What a Life-Altering Accident Taught Me About Human Frailty and God’s Power

There’s an incredible beauty in such an opportunity for growth that is far too easy for us to miss.

‘Accident’ (photo: Bobex-73 / Shutterstock)

With great frequency, I am asked if I am angry with the man who struck me with a Jeep last summer, breaking both of my arms as I was cycling on a clear day. I’m not.

To the best of my knowledge, the man who hit me isn’t evil. He’s simply human. There was no malice in his action, only negligence. Better said, he made a mistake. We all do that from time to time, and if we’re honest, we all act in ways that are reckless or negligent periodically. Most of the time, everything works out okay. For some of us, the worst possible scenario happens instead — like hitting a cyclist when looking at a cell phone while driving.

I don’t know the man who hit me. We’ve never met, before or since the accident. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him. Strangely, I realize that the only thing I know about him is his humanity. I know that he’s flawed, that he makes mistakes. I was on the receiving end of one of his mistakes, and suffered the consequences for months.

I can’t help but wonder that, if we were conscious of that fact with regard to everyone we met, would it change how we treat each other? A moment’s reflection is all it takes for us to see that we are indeed all flawed, all making mistakes frequently.

Human imperfection should not be news to us, because of who we see in the mirror, but we don’t generally think about it. Imagine being introduced to a man, reaching to shake his hand, and thinking, “This person might harm me, completely by accident. The closer the friendship becomes, the more likely he is to harm me (however unintentionally), and the deeper the wound.”

This line of thinking doesn’t sound productive or healthy, but it is true. I think we’re afraid to ponder it. It makes the world seem more frightening by causing us to doubt even our friends. When our friends make mistakes that harm us, we’re shocked. We feel affronted, betrayed even. But mistakes shouldn’t take us completely by surprise because we know what it is to be human. We’ve looked in the mirror, spent time doing examinations of conscience (if not, we certainly should), and heard ourselves in the confessional. Yet, forgiveness is hard. Even in this Lenten season, wherein we are reminded of the terrible cost of our own sins, forgiveness is hard.

It is said that suffering can be redeemed — that the pain and wounds can be healed; moreover, it is said that suffering can be redemptive —that our pains and wounds can begin a process of purification and sanctification.

I wonder if this painful event has brought good to the driver. We both suffered the consequences of that moment long past its expiration. Our suffering didn’t end when his vehicle fractured my bones. That’s when the battles began, for me and for him. If we grow from this, might we eventually be able to say that we’re glad that it happened, even if we wouldn’t want to re-experience it? While I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone, I can say that my having been injured has also occasioned grace and friendship. In other words, God did not leave my wounds untouched.

Immediately after I left the hospital, I moved into the home of some of the sweetest people I have had the pleasure of knowing. We had previously done some volunteer efforts at my parish together. My arms were more painful than they were immobile, but they were also very weak, so I needed to be with people who could help me with the ordinary tasks of life.

Every day, these people prepared food that I couldn’t have made alone. Invariably, pancakes were a feature of our breakfast. Regardless of my efforts (and I have a stubborn streak), I wasn’t strong enough to cut them myself. Not by tearing, not by slicing. Believe me, I tried. There’s something that feels incarcerating about losing the use of your arms. You are rendered defenseless, largely useless, and unable to complete the tasks that you will. Consequently, you are much more cognizant of your vulnerability and your mortality.

It’s also an opportunity for profound trust. Not just trust in gracious and charitable friends, but trust in the Lord — that somehow, good can come out of what could otherwise be mistaken for random, vacuous chance.

Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t know how to distinguish God’s permissive will from his perfect will in our daily lives, or if there even is a way. I don’t believe that every car accident is wanted by God, nor do I have any reason to suspect that mine was. I leave speculations about Divine Providence to more capable thinkers than I. But I know that horrific circumstances can bear beautiful fruits if we cooperate with grace.

Without the Lord, all suffering would be worthless and therefore embittering. There’s nothing positive that can be found in the darkness. In that worldview, there are not even heavens to scream at for justice.

Instead, I can relate to Bishop Fulton Sheen, who during a Good Friday sermon pointed to the sufferings of his life before concluding, “They are less than I deserve.” Suffering is only a scandal if we deserve better, and I don’t. Christ came to redeem us at a terrible cost to himself — an action necessary to save us from what would have been just. Seen in the light of our own sins, whatever pains we experience in this life, are less than we deserve.

Socrates’ assertion seems outrageous at first:

Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth — that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.

It would be easy to misunderstand what he is saying and to therefore dismiss him, arguing that we have all seen or heard of good men who have been subject to the malice of others, but to Socrates, a man is his soul. While a good man’s body might be harmed in an act of unjust malevolence, his soul is not touched unless he wills it. The aggressor’s soul is harmed by his own actions, however.

The aggressor can tempt the victim to bitterness and resentment, but he does not have to succumb. And what if he doesn’t? Then he grows. He becomes better. We intuitively know this to be true. He becomes closer to Christ because his suffering provides a point of union with Christ. This is not the inevitable consequence however; it requires conscious choice. It’s what we can always will, even when our bodies no longer respond to our dictates.

When neither party is malevolent, both can become better for it. There’s an incredible beauty in this opportunity for growth that is far too easy for us to miss.

The driver and I went through a moment together, which had the potential to reshape our lives. We’ve both suffered since. He lost the insurance that he held — insurance that was at a minimal level because that’s all he could afford. His situation was already fragile. The accident risked a lawsuit, and he likely had to bear the harsh reflection that his already-dire situation left him nothing to lose. That’s a mirror that none of us would want to look into. Yet, growth can come from pain.

Maybe you don’t see freedom in your ability to cut your own pancake, but I do. It takes trial to reach that kind of understanding of the fragility of our lives. It takes suffering that I wouldn’t want to re-experience, but that I can appreciate with the clarity of hindsight.

For this understanding of such simple pleasures and freedoms, I am grateful. That day brought clarity to my helplessness — there was no maneuver that I could make to avoid being hit. Then there was the helplessness that came later through the loss of the use of my arms.

But we’re all largely vulnerable in areas of great significance. We can’t control catastrophes. They will happen in all of our lives. We can only control our responses to them. It is then that we might unite our sufferings to the cross, grow closer to the Lord, and truly mean what we utter when we dare to say, “and forgive those who trespass against us.”