Yesterday was National Near Miss Day. At first glance, it seems like an odd thing to celebrate. You are celebrating the status quo–nothing has changed before or after the near miss. We are still alive to tell the tale as they say. However, few things in life can be counted on to give you a pounding heart and in my case, the tingling on the backs of my hands like a near miss.
Mostly we associate a near miss with catastrophes, whether it’s the screech of brakes when you look away from the road for that one crucial second or the odd sensation of nothing beneath our steps when there is supposed to be. My baby brother has had several near-misses with death, once while walking across a log suspended above some body-crushing height in Korea, and then once when he fell down a volcano (inactive, thank God!) in New Zealand. Each time he emerged relatively unscathed, with an interesting bar story to tell.
We forget that near misses can be associated with people also, like in Garth Brooks’ song about unanswered prayers. I like to ask my patients how they met their spouses. Inevitably, a litany of what if’s become part of the conversation. What if we had never gone on that blind date? What if his cousin hadn’t decided to drag him into your pizza joint? If she had not… or he had not… are all elements in a good how-we-got-together story. How often do chance meetings when you didn’t plan to go out or because you never go to that particular coffee shop, result in a friendship or a connection that might not have happened if we hadn’t taken that chance. The romantics of the world would say it was meant to be. If you are a believer in soul mates, you might say it was destiny. If you believe in an omniscient God, all of our actions are predetermined and known ahead of time.
In the peculiarly human way we all have, we can keep contrasting ideas in our head, and still be able to exist in complete harmony with ourselves. Consequently, most of us believe in free will and predetermination–depending on the situation. If all the world is chaos, random happenstance ruling our lives, then how do we continue making our way through every day, without the worry that an asteroid may come out of nowhere and smash our world to smithereens? And if we believe in predetermination, why then do we feel we are in charge of our own futures, our choices steering our path?
With these contrary beliefs, we develop constructs or theories that help us to cope. We believe that if we are good, make good choices, associate with good people, we can protect ourselves from tragedy. Consequently, when tragedy does arise, victim-blaming sometimes occurs, even by the victim themselves. Haven’t we all asked ourselves at some time or another, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” In reality, bad things happen to good people all the time. The families of those on the missing Malaysian jet are likely wishing their loved ones’ taxi had been late to the flight or that alarm clocks had malfunctioned the morning of the flight–any kind of intervention that would take away their pain. It gives them some sense of control to combat the helplessness they feel.
My most memorable near miss happened when I was in high school. I was waiting for my mother to pick me up from school, back in the days when it took only 10 cents to call on the payphone, or you called collect and when they asked your name, you said “I’m done, come pick me up” instead of your name, and then hung up. Because we had the family business, I often waited there for a while, until my mom was free. One of the girls I knew from class offered to give me a ride home with the rest of her girlfriends since she lived around the corner. I distinctly remember her saying “You’re pretty small, we’ve got plenty of room.” I wavered back and forth, eventually deciding just to keep waiting, because the car looked awfully full. The next day, I heard that the car full of girls had been in an accident, and one of the girls was seriously injured. I remember feeling an odd sense of guilt, as if by being present I could have prevented the accident. In truth, it is when we give up the illusion of control that we can let go of irrational fear, guilt, and blame.
My best near-miss occurred after I met my husband on a blind date set up by my best friend. I had asked her not to give him my phone number because I thought it would be too complicated, but he called her house just after she had left and her mother unknowingly gave him my number. Though I was kind of rude to him, we continued talking, and 22 years later, we’re still here. He says he would have persisted anyway, so maybe it was meant to be.
I think we celebrate near misses because it does change us, even if for just a little while. We see for a split second, all our possible futures, endings and beginnings, our potential mates and fates. Then the elevator door closes, our feet slam down into reality, and we are back to the status quo again. I think we celebrate that little space after a near miss in which we feel truly alive, and grateful to be so.
Today I am grateful for the near misses in my life, and for the people I nearly missed out on because I was too busy paying attention to the wrong road signs. I am blessed to have all of them in my life, through the grace of God alone, and not through any foresight or planning on my part.