“Learning to Live With Not Knowing ‘Why’”

Read this author's reflective narrative where she asks 'why am I still alive?' after her car accident.

Your sense of mortality might slowly creep up on you as you age, or maybe it hits you like a semi. The latter happened to me.

One recent Thanksgiving, I drove from Indiana to Minnesota to spend the holidays with my family. My passengers were my then-boyfriend, who sat in the passenger side, and a student who joined my carpool at the last minute, sitting behind me. Around 9 p.m., near the Three Bears Lodge in Wisconsin, I was entering the interstate in the freezing rain when my car spun out. I regained control for about a second before I spun out again, turning I-don’t-know-how-many times before I was hit by a semi-truck.

When you’re thinking, “Huh, that wasn’t as bad as I thought” — that’s when you know you’re still alive.

My car ended up on the side of the highway, the truck was in the median, and neither of us drivers were injured. The airbags didn’t even deploy because I was hit on the side, not head-on. The only injuries were a concussion and seat belt damage to the student riding with us, and a herniated spinal disc for my then-boyfriend. Neither injury is ideal, but it could have been much, much worse. My roommate backed out at the last minute, which is good because as a tiny woman, she likely would not have survived the impact that directly hit the seat she would have occupied.

The logistical reason I look to in order to explain my survival (and lack of injury) is that the semi-truck was not loaded, so the impact was far less than it could have been. Also, I was entering the highway, so I wasn’t moving very fast; and at the first spinout, the truck driver had time to slow down before crashing into me.

At the same time, a number of circumstances surrounding that evening worked together to put me in that crashed car on the side of the road. We left later than planned, then I had a minor detour when I took a wrong turn. I spent a few minutes giving a man a couple of bucks at a gas station in Illinois (my then-boyfriend, a Hindu, concluded that the act was good karma and the reason why our accident wasn’t worse). And I happened to need to stop for gas at just the right time to put that semi in my way when I tried to get back on the road.

There are many factors in my day that could have led me either toward or away from this accident. You could say that the reason I am alive holds the same weight as the reason I was hit at all.

When I told my story to my family, my friends, and professors, they said, “Well, THANK GOD you’re alive!” And yes, thank God I’m alive — thank God we’re all alive, and thank God my roommate backed out last minute.

But why me, and not the other 37,461 people who died in car crashes in the United States that year?

Others said something like, “You’re alive for a reason!” I’d smile appreciatively but wonder: Were the other 37,461 supposed to die? Did their lives not have the same value as mine? Am I “special” — destined to become a prophetess, a healer, a saint? For what reason did I survive?

Was it good karma? Was it to teach me to be safe on the icy roads on which I had grown up learning to drive? I don’t think so — I was already being safe. Was it to bond my then-boyfriend and I in adrenaline and a near-death experience, giving us an everlasting connection that very few people understand? Again, no — we’re no longer together.

All I can tell you is I have no reason why I crashed and no reason why I survived — at least, none that I can see. Not all things that happen have a reason that we can account for. I do know that I am happy to be alive, and that I am going to move forward living my life, but I don’t know why 37,461 people do not have that opportunity.

It might be tempting to see only two ways to make sense of this life-threatening situation: either it happened for a reason, and God ordained it for a higher purpose; or it is proof that our lives are ruled by luck and chance. I certainly don’t have the authority to say what’s right. All I know is there’s a lot of good and bad in this world, a lot of pain and a lot of faith. When I heard the Hamilton soundtrack for the first time, a month after the accident, the song “Wait for It” really struck a chord with me, particularly the chorus:

 Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints,
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway,
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes,
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died,
I’m willing to wait for it.

I’ve learned to live with the ambiguity of not knowing why. Having a reason to survive a car crash is not the kind of guidance I feel like I need in my life. I don’t feel endowed with a special sense of purpose because I survived. I’m not looking for a reason, but I’m willing to wait for it. I’m still making my way through life, a little bit planned and a little bit lost.

In the end, aren’t we all?

Grotto quote graphic of Hamilton lyrics about why am I still alive: "Life doesn't discriminate / between the sinners and the saints, / it takes and it takes and it takes / and we keep living anyway, / we rise and we fall and we break / and we make our mistakes, / and if there's a reason I'm still alive / when so many have died, / I'm willing to wait for it." —"Wait for It" from Hamilton.

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