A Strong Hand
There was once a girl. When she was but a young driver, she was behind the wheel of a car when a hot headed drunk driver slammed into her vehicle. Her car spun out of control, in circles, hitting a guardrail four times before finally coming to a halt. When it finally stopped, she was pinned to her seat, unable to move the car door that lay practically on top of her. While she would eventually escape physically unscathed, a friend in the passenger seat lost consciousness and would never wake up. The accident was not the girl’s fault: she had obeyed all traffic laws. But she learned a lesson that day…. that not matter what she did, no matter how many precautions she took, she could not control the outside world. She was at the mercy of any stranger who decided to drive while intoxicated. Or any driver who fell asleep at the wheel, or failed to stop completely at a stop sign, or drove twenty miles over the speed limit. Obeying all laws couldn’t safeguard her from the decisions of others. Yet, every time she got behind the wheel of a car with passengers, she was responsible for their lives. The knowledge was overwhelming, too much for her to bear. For the next forty three years, she refused to drive.
Then, one day, when she was sixty five years old, during the worst storm of the year, her husband of thirty seven years complained of chest pains. The storm affected the phone lines, she couldn’t call for an ambulance. She thought he was dying. Staying at home risked killing him. Driving him to the hospital risked death too. In the end, though, the woman decided she finally didn’t have any real choice: she had to drive. Necessity forced change. She relinquished control and adapted: after that day, she drove until her death.
I relate to this woman in a lot of fundamental ways. She reminds me a lot of Faulkner’s story, “A Rose for Emily.” In that story, the heroine, Emily, refused to change. She wouldn’t pay her taxes because previous generations hadn’t been required to do so. She wore strange clothing. She wouldn’t update her house. She wouldn’t get a car. It wasn’t that she couldn’t do any of these things, it was that she chose not to. She was obviously stuck in the past. Except that I think it was more than that. I think her real problem wasn’t fear of change but a fear of admitting vulnerability, admitting that the control was out of her hands. I cannot tell you how sorry I felt for Emily. Even though she committed a terrible crime, I really just wanted to hug her. I wanted to tell her that it was okay. I wanted her to know I understood.
Control is my friend. It makes me feel safe. When I feel threatened in any way, when I am facing a situation in which I am scared, uncertain, angry or otherwise deeply emotionally invested, my hands will clench without my being consciously aware of it. It’s as if I’m physically trying to hold on to at least some semblance of control. I don’t like people to know when I am truly upset, worried, or hurt. I’d rather deal with it on my own because, if I do, then I can make sure I’m not rejected, laughed at or patronized. You allow people to really fall in love with you when you wear your heart on your sleeve. That’s also when you’re at your weakest, when you’re most in danger of facing rejection. It’s easier, and safer, for me to stay within the illusory safety of isolation than to deal with that kind of emotional trauma. Being alone is better than being hurt.
Faulkner’s Emily’s gravest danger was Emily herself. The woman who refused to drive after an awful car accident took away her own freedom, and created unnecessary stress for those who loved her, by refusing to drive. And for what? Emily could have been betrayed by a trusted friend. The woman could have been killed when she walked to the grocery store. Those of us who cling to control as some sort of safety net are fooling ourselves: we could be blindsided at any moment by some act of terror, or accident, or betrayal or … maybe not. Maybe our greatest loss comes instead from that which we lose by insisting on living as islands.
The longer I live the more convinced I become that buried deep within our worst trauma is our greatest gift. I grew up without any semblance of control. I know what’s it’s like to not have control of even your own body. The scariest thing in this world is realizing how powerless I really am—both in the physical realm and in relationships. I can’t prevent someone from attacking me. I can’t prevent someone from walking away. I can’t force someone to listen. Hiding from that knowledge makes sense to me on deep levels because being knocked down hurts so badly. But. Over the last couple years, I have realized that, without those painful experiences, I wouldn’t know how to speak out. I wouldn’t understand the victims of assault, and I wouldn’t be able to assure them they aren’t alone. I wouldn’t see what I see. And I wouldn’t be the mother that I am. Hidden within my greatest trauma was my greatest strength. I just had to see past the pain to recognize it. Living vulnerably means living openly, taking people at their word, even when you have reason not to; choosing to laugh when you’d rather cry; forcing my head onto the pillow even when it terrifies the crap out of me to do so; admitting fear. When we admit our weaknesses with humility and grace, we show our strength rather than stronghold it. And we come out healthier.
There is a song that Sugarland sings that says, “You’ll know just the moment when I’ve had enough / Sometimes I’m afraid, and Idon’t feel that tough / But I will stand back up.” This song makes me cry every time I hear it because it is so, so true. No matter how much it hurts to admit it, I cannot control what life does to me. But Ican control my reaction to those events, thereby choosing to claim victory over those heartbreaking traumatic experiences. I can speak out. I can write books. I can trust again.
I can drive again.