This is the news that currently is gripping our community. Of course it can happen anytime, anywhere teens and cars can be found together. And it often happens around this time of year, now that school is almost over and seniors, in particular, have little to do between AP exams and high school graduation, which does not occur for another three weeks.
What makes this accident most tragic is the fact that it was clearly avoidable. The teens were driving along a rural road and decided to speed up and “hit the bumps” as apparently they had done before. All had seat belts on, but the car went out of control and hit a tree, causing severe head injuries to Cheryl, who died hours later.
We did not know Cheryl or her family, although our son was in her senior class. Nor do we know either of the boys, John, the driver, or Matthew, the other passenger. My son and his friends attended the wake, and many also attended the funeral, held yesterday.
I cannot imagine bearing the grief that Cheryl’s family and friends must be suffering now on these sun-drenched days before all her friends will graduate and most go off to college, as she had planned to do. Their loss must dig deep into their every waking moment.
But my heart also goes out to John and Matthew, who survived and must not only live with the knowledge that they might have prevented the accident, but also must face the anger and bitterness of those who blame them for what happened. Feelings must be running quite high, since at the funeral Cheryl’s pastor warned, “Anger is a poison that kills us if we don't find healthy ways to deal with it. We need to find a way to forgive.”
I’m all for accountability for wrongdoing and the kind of sanctions that establish standards for conduct and deter violations of those standards. But while actions must have their consequences, I cannot help but empathize with the wrongdoers.
In this particular case, I must confess it could have been me. No, I did not drive recklessly as a teen in the sense of speeding or trying to perform stunts. I was the proverbial “good” kid, the kind who studied tirelessly, never skipped a day of school, let my parents know where I was going and when I would be home, worked diligently at part-time and summer jobs, and saved almost all my money for college. But… unknown to most everyone but my close friends, I did drive recklessly in that I, whom my parents trusted, let me take our second car (actually my grandmother’s who had quit driving) just about anywhere I wanted. That meant that I was the one who drove whenever my friends and I went to parties or just drove around the country roads at night while under the influence of one substance or another. The joke was that I drove more carefully and attentively when I was stoned. Some joke.
It didn’t last long – just a couple of seemingly idyllic months after my senior in high school until I came to the conclusion that I had better things to do with my time, and started hanging out with some friends who didn’t drink or smoke. But, needless to say, it has struck me many times over since then, especially now that I have teenagers of my own, how easily I could have ended up like Cheryl or John.
It would be easy to chalk up this behavior as youthful indiscretion, as a brief experiment trying to act and be “cool.” It wasn’t, it just was an early example of one of the many things I’ve done in my life just because I felt like it, because I didn’t think or care enough about the harm that it might cause others.
The sad thing is that I continue to behave that way, at times, even though drinking and driving is not one of them. Like most people, I think of myself as basically being “good” and always wanting to do the right thing. But what an awful trap that can be because it can keep me from seeing ways in which I can and must do better and can keep me from finding love and compassion for those who do not seem to be as “good” as I think I am or try to be.
I weary of the kind of sin-talk I see from time to time on conservative religion forums, the kind of discussion where everyone seems to be bending over backwards to claim that they are more thoroughly and painfully cognizant of their own sinful nature (not to mention humanity’s depravity in general) than others, and that the more one contemplates the blood oozing out of Christ’s wounds, each drop bearing witness to the horrific punishment we all deserve, the better everyone will be. That just seems to me to be a grim way of asserting (and endlessly reasserting) that someone or someones are better than everyone else.
But it is, indeed, true that we are all sinners, that we sin out of both carelessness and design, day in and day out. That realization, however awful, does not leave me in a dark dungeon of despair or self-flagellation. It makes me think with love of Cheryl, John, and Matthew, whom I pray will live on, in heaven and on earth, in grace and humility. We all make mistakes, some with horrific consequences, and none of us is truly better than anyone else. Thank God who forgives, gives us joy as well as sorrow, and helps bring us back, time and time again, into his loving arms.