The Piper Will Be Paid

I’ve been thinking a lot about how narrow a line we tread between normal, reasonable activities and the permanent, serious consequences that can result from a moment’s inattention. Stories of momentarily unsupervised children chasing balls into the street, texting and driving, a nasty aside made within the hearing of a paranoid and violence-prone drunk. There are so many mundane activities that can result in injuries or harm which cannot be reversed; the difference between a non-event and trauma can require only a moment or two of forethought or precaution—shrewd behaviors that our particularly protected and indulged society seems to scoff at because for so long now, we’ve been able to save people from themselves. But for those who suffer the irreversible harm, it’s too late.

In my most recent post, I used the example of Weekend Warriors who venture forth into the woods, excited about a day of hiking in the great outdoors, confident that their cell phone will protect them if problems arise, “prepared” with a bottle of water. But what happens to these innocents who disregard the trail signs and wander off, stunned to find themselves lost with no breadcrumbs to follow? Miles off the trail covered with rough underbrush and no means to summon help.

A continent away, a serious problem here in DC has been commuters whose purses or cell phones have been snatched out of their hands on the Metro. Although there are many news stories and posters warning riders of this danger, people ignore them, refusing to change their behaviors. These passengers, blithely unaware of being observed by those with felonious intent, move their heads to the beat of whatever music is broadcast through their headsets. Unable to hear what’s going on around them and lost in their own thoughts, it comes as an unwelcome surprise when the subway doors open and the thief absconds with their belongings.

Or how about the women strutting through LAX with their hair extensions, stilettos, and short shorts who express outrage that because they couldn’t sprint down the crowded corridors, they missed their tight connection or complain that it’s “freezing” on board? Wow, that’s rough.

When I think about examples like these—with their decreasing order of resulting injury– I genuinely wonder how these folks make it through life because they show so little common sense. They demonstrate inordinate naïve arrogance that it won’t happen to them and/or faith that the “system” will be there to make everything fine. No harm, no foul, right? Wrong. As the president of my college said at our commencement, “There is no free lunch.” Acts have consequences and the piper will be paid.

Look at the bankruptcy of the once glorious City of Detroit! And it is only the tip of the iceberg of false bureaucratic promises made with tomorrow’s (yet to be collected or generated) money. Optimistic accounting, “just this one text,” the minor indulgence of telling ourselves “we’ll be fine” as we walk alone through an unfamiliar and uncomfortable part of town. It’s fine, ‘til it isn’t.

We are all the lucky recipients of having been born at a time and in an age of prosperity where (at least in the Western world) society functions smoothly; we can reasonably rely that somebody will come if we need help; that we’ll have access to the things we need when we need them. This is not the case in many parts of the world. Hey, I won the geographic lottery when I was born and I’ll take it, but what perplexes me is our fellow citizens who just don’t even bother to plan ahead for complications that might prove serious—who fail to take responsibility for themselves! And then not only can there be serious and permanent consequences for some particularly unlucky individuals, but we’re often left to deal with the residual mess.

But back to my original examples of the hikers, the commuters, and the air travelers—each of these is an example of the naïve arrogance that clouds the minds of so many. They just assume the first responders will come. They believe it’s reasonable to tune out what’s going on around them after a long, hard day. They tell themselves it’s important they look cute in their shorts and stilettos when they arrive at their destination. Really? None of this means they’re bad people, but it does signify a sloppiness of thinking and staggeringly unsophisticated belief that they will escape the consequences of their foolishness. They might, but we won’t.

Re-booters have been beat up by life once or twice, but we’re also smart enough to learn our lessons. We’re not so arrogant as to believe there’s no way something bad could happen to us. We take that extra second to glance both directions before crossing the street. We prepare ourselves in case our hoped-for “backstops” fail to manifest. We unplug our ears in order to be aware of our surroundings. We do our best to protect those who are in our care.

What makes me sad is the many who haven’t prepared themselves and then, when misfortune visits, in addition to their grief and their shock, they pay a heavy price that is so unnecessary; if only they had planned ahead, just a little. Accidents happen of course, best laid plans and all that jazz applies to many sad stories, but there continue to be instances when thoughtless behavior extracts a giant price no one wants to see paid.

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