October 24, 2004


Over on Seedlings & Sprouts, Julie talks about driving by the site where a 16-year-old girl was killed in a car crash earlier this year on Bainbridge Island. Julie points to some articles that bemoan the fact that the tragedy doesn't seem to have affected the level of self-destructive behavior in the teen community.

I grew up in a kind of island community. It wasn't surrounded by water, but the nearest town of any size was over an hour away. Not only that, the town where I lived was so sprawled that my nearest friends were three miles away, and some were as far as twenty! You couldn't be part of the teen social world in my town until you could drive or had friends who did.

I remember dozens of times riding with friends or driving them myself when we took life-threatening risks. Sliding around corners on twisty mountain roads, ignoring the center line, ignoring hundred-foot cliffs with no guardrail, ignoring ice patches, ignoring the effect of a couple of beers. It's amazing how few mishaps we actually suffered.

When I was a senior in high school, a girl I'd known since 1st grade died in a car crash on her way to school. She looked away from the road to adjust her stereo and hit another vehicle head on. I remember that morning at school hearing about the accident and being shocked that someone my own age was gone. I remember people crying and a subdued atmosphere around the school that day (and probably longer).

What I don't remember is whether we acted any differently afterwards. I sincerely doubt it.

I remember how my brain worked when I was that age (partly because I haven't matured all that much since then ;-) It's not so much that I actively thought of myself as invincible, it's more that the possibility of my mortality was completely inconceivable. I can't imagine any evidence to the contrary that would have convinced me otherwise. It's my theory that this cluelessness is hardwired in the human psyche. I think this behavior has been selected for in millions of years of evolution. You can see how the ability to act without thinking in dangerous situations would be useful to the survival of the species.

But I think there's something more insidious going on here as well. The way we talk about death-by-car (and, actually, the way we talk about all the negative effects of the automobile on our society, but that's another rant) encourage us to think of car crashes as being fault-free events. We call them "car accidents". Articles about crashes always talk about the car taking actions "the car crossed the center line", "the car struck the pedestrian" as if the car were in charge, the person behind the wheel just an unwitting accomplice. It's another layer of unreality on an already unbelievable situation. Why should I change my behavior when crashes just happen?

Here in Issaquah there have been at least four teen traffic fatalities (see the euphemisms we use to distance ourselves from these things?) in the last few months. It seems like more than usual. It makes me wonder if the current state of the world is a factor as well. Kids see terrorists spending lives recklessly for indeterminate messages. They hear about over 1000 young men and women not much older than themselves dying in a country that it turns out could not have harmed us if it wanted to. I have to wonder if their recklessness is partly bred from seeing such a rampant disregard for young life in their elders. Or is it acting out in response to the fear of how uncertain their futures must seem. "We may die tomorrow, so why worry about dying today?"

Maybe the only way we can hope to get kids to take their mortality seriously is to, as Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." If we caused our government to place a higher value on the lives of our young people, maybe they would follow suit.

Posted by jeffy at October 24, 2004 01:24 PM

Thanks, Jeffy, for sharing your experience and thoughts. I'm sorry you lost someone you knew in high school. Perhaps what is happening with youth here and now is in part what has happened through history (immortality belief) and part what is happening now in our time (despair at the present situations).

Posted by: Julie at October 31, 2004 10:01 PM