When I was backpacking in Spain, I witnessed a car accident. It was a beautiful day in Valencia and I had spent most of it on the beach with my hiking backpack next to my chair. I took a bus around 4:00 back to the center of town so I could buy my train ticket to Alicante later that night. Since Spanish bus routes are difficult and confusing, I got off on the wrong bus stop and was out of cash. I had nine blocks left to walk to the station, so I began walking. I crossed a major intersection that led out of the nine story tall buildings and into a blue-sky public park full of brilliant Spanish sunshine right in the middle of the city. It’s called El Rio and it snakes its way through Valencia from the sea port until you get out of the main district. The roads go over the park trees, and you have to take steps to get down into the park. The park is filled with fountains and landscaped gardens whose flowers color coordinate famous Spanish crests and other landmarks. It is also filled with people taking off their shoes for a dip in the fountains and orange trees lined in geometric groves. It is a saturday afternoon paradise.
I went down to pick some oranges. They were rotten and full of white grubs, much to my horror on biting into one. I had a terrible taste in my mouth and was heading back up the stairs with my backpack when I think I heard a distant shattering of glass. It was soft. I climbed the rest of the steps to see nine people gathered around a small European car that had flipped over onto the driver’s side and had rested there. Glass was strewn across the street and there was a lady on a scooter down the street frantically communicating to some people on their cell phones. The nine people and I remained clueless as to what to do. Your first reaction in a situation like this is “someone should do something” but then you say “the police have been called, what can I possibly do?” And then you tell yourself “Go and see if the people need help” but then you think “but I am not a trained professional – I would probably mess something up.” And by this time you have become a voyeur, just a member of the crowd with their mouths open not knowing what to do but unable to pull themselves away.
There was an arm hanging out of the passenger side window. There was also a shoe underneath the driver’s side door. Then I saw the puddle growing larger as it crawled out of the bottom side of the car by the shoe. Someone had to check. I went up to the car and took a distant look on my tip toes without getting to close. The arm was full of hair and looked strong – the man must have been in his late twenties and active. I raised up on my tip toes to see if he was moving. The puddle was more now, and the drips from the broken glass windows, the shoe, and the arm had made it clear enough. I suddenly lost my stomach.
I never gathered details on how it happened. I can only imagine that he dodged the lady on the scooter as she was turning, and perhaps he hit the curb hard and rolled. I couldn’t easily ask people either. We stayed until the rescue squad cut out the windshield and the door with the jaws of life and then raised him to a stretcher, all the while pushing us back so we couldn’t see. I eventually left and continued walking to the train station, having witnessed my first fatality, and questioning a million things about the universe along the way. I was sick, but the only thing I could think about was that it could have been me. It could have been anyone I knew. God decided either to take this man intentionally, or created a world where any of us could go at anytime in a freak traffic accident and was not in control of it – which seems to limit his omnipotence. I think it’s fair to say from scripture that God did not wind the world up like a deist clock and leave everything up to chance – nor does he intend for any human to die. How could his will be for us to be killed prematurely? It must be some strange confluence of the two, I thought as I walked past the Corrida de Toros and listened to the crowd cheer for blood. The world is not how it was meant to be, and tragedies are not how God would wish for his people to leave the world. However, we can’t say that God isn’t sovereign over it. He must be – he must allow these terrible things even though it is not what he wants. I can’t say that I fully understood it that day as I got on the train and watched the arid mountains fly by my window.
But it does help me to see that our days our numbered – whatever it is that we shouldn’t die without doing or saying. I made myself a list in the train and swore to begin very soon; the beauty in tragedy is that it can often teach those who experience its ripple effect how to live more presently and intentionally. The horror floats away in rings like a rain drop on the surface of a pond, but bouncing off the minds of humans it returns from us into beautiful conviction.