GUEST OPINION II: Gleaning Knowledge from Near Death

By on February 16, 2016

A car accident that could have been deadly offers perspective on human fragility.

Certain situations prompt us to step back, slow down and ask the question, ‘Why are we here?’ (Photo: skye schell)

Certain situations prompt us to step back, slow down and ask the question, ‘Why are we here?’ (Photo: skye schell)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Last week I was in a nasty car crash in Star Valley. I was driving back to Jackson with my cousin Style and I had stopped for a school bus picking up kids. However, the woman driving a VW Bug behind me did not stop. She ran her car into mine at about 65 mph, sending my head into the steering wheel, which knocked me unconscious, and propelled my car into a 450-degree spin while she careened towards the school bus. The impact also sent my vehicle into a third car with a baby in the backseat. Luckily, incredibly, thankfully, as far as I could tell, nobody else was hurt. I may have gotten the worst of it by going face-first into the steering wheel (even with a seatbelt; the airbags didn’t deploy). I ended up with a broken nose (one stitch, very haggard), concussion, whiplash, lung air pocket, and assorted other face and chest bruises. Most importantly, we’re all still alive and those kids are safe. It could have been so much worse.

I had a lot of time to reflect, driving to and from the hospital, in the ER, and at my aunt and uncle’s house. Brushing up against death brought to mind Mary Oliver’s great line: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I wonder—here, in this brief window of clarity, of seeing past the day-to-day, the myths and distractions promulgated by the TV and corporate media and false binary choices— should I do things differently?

What arose from this incident was mostly a sense of gratitude. I’m grateful that Style didn’t get knocked out and was much more with it than me, and that his first thought was to check on the driver who hit us and make sure she was OK. I am very grateful to the first people on the scene, an awesome couple from Colorado that recently moved to Alpine. They made sure everyone was OK and let us stay warm in their “Hayduke Lives”-stickered car (it was 12 degrees outside and we were at the site for a couple hours). Then to the EMTs, fire fighters, state police and county sheriff who took good care of all of us on the scene. And the good nurses and doctors and CT techs at St Johns ER, and to Aunt Mamie (a nurse!) who has us all under her watch and good cooking now, and Uncle Ron as well.

More broadly, I feel fortunate and grateful to be alive—in general, and especially today. I am extremely grateful for all the care we got and all the support I have in family and friends, and for having health insurance and a good hospital nearby, so many things I usually take for granted but am directly appreciating right now. And I have a deeper appreciation for the people I know (and don’t know) who have gone through so much worse and survived (or not survived), and the people who love them.

Getting beat up just a little bit also made me reflect on the ways in which people beat people up so much more. Somehow I feel more tuned in to the frequency of receiving high-energy physical violence and force right now. And I am sad that our country, to which I have pledged allegiance and pay taxes, has been responsible for so much unjust violence and torture, from slavery in the 1800s (just saw “Twelve Years a Slave;” highly recommended) to segregationist beatings in the 60s, to supporting Latin American death squads who killed Jesuit priests and peasants in the 80s, to rendition and torture nowadays and presidential candidates calling to crank up the torture dial even more. Sure, everybody else does it too, and there are lots of bad guys out there… but could we please lead by example and just stop doing torture?

Life is so fragile and fleeting, and so easy to lose—out of nowhere, without even a warning. As much as it’s a cliché, I know any day really could be the last, whether from an avalanche in the Tetons, a bomb in a war, or just a driver who inexplicably goes full speed into stopped for a school bus. So, while we’re all here right now, let’s prioritize peace and healing, however we can.

I welcome any thoughts you have on the fragility of life and how to end torture, or more mundane topics like best practices for dealing with insurance of a very totaled car, what I should replace it with, or how to care for concussions and broken noses.

Above all, I’m feeling very grateful for family, friends and my community. PJH

Skye Schell works on conservation and workforce housing in Jackson and writes about sleeping in strange locations at Email comments to

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