Cultural Caviar

Death or Discomfort?

August 26, 2017

He turned out to be a very fast driver as well; he had only to see a straight stretch of road to accelerate to the maximum, soon to be followed by emergency braking. This was terrifying enough, but he chose to emphasize what he was saying by manual gestures that necessitated taking his hands from the wheel. Naturally, he wore no seat belt. I wore mine and clung to my armrests for dear life, as if my grip would be of any consequence in a collision at, say, a combined speed of more than 200 miles an hour.

We stopped halfway for some refreshments. He evidently needed to keep his blood-alcohol level up. But the strange fact was that I said absolutely nothing, not a word, to him about his state or his driving. To coin a phrase, I would rather have died rather than do so. Was this politeness or cowardice, the mere avoidance of an embarrassing scene?

I told myself what was true, that statistically speaking the vast majority of journeys conducted by drunken drivers end safely (I knew this in part because, in my youth, I conducted some such journeys myself, always without mishap); it was only the relative, not the absolute, risk of death that was high. I told myself this not to reassure myself as to my chances of survival, but to reassure myself that to say nothing was, in the circumstances, perfectly reasonable and therefore the right thing to do. It was not cowardice; it was reason.

For me, then, the avoidance of a scene was more important than the avoidance of death. Of course, if I had said something a scene, or at least embarrassment on my part, would certainly have ensued, whereas death was only a possibility; but I think that even if death had been much more likely or certain than it was, I still would have behaved in the same way.

It is often said that life is not worth living unless there is something you are prepared to die for. I am not sure that the avoidance of an embarrassing scene is worth dying for, but I have feared such scenes far more than I have feared men carrying guns. Is this good or bad? In some circumstances it would make me brave, for I would fear to appear a coward in the presence of others; in others, it would make me a coward and warp my scale of values.

At least my dream informed me how ordinary I am.

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