August 05, 2008
I was on the train to work last week when I looked over to see a girl reading a local newspaper. The article she was studying was headed, ‘Lorry driver “distracted by bee” killed two girls’. Intrigued by this, before stepping off the train I picked up the now discarded copy.
According to the trucker’s story, he had become distracted by a bee in his cab and so had veered off course, ploughing into oncoming cars, and killing two young women. In the words of the judge, who presided over a trial for dangerous driving, ‘It is something that might happen to anyone’. The trucker was convicted of dangerous driving and sentenced to four years in prison. Yet his true sentence is life: he will have to live with the knowledge that his actions, no matter how unintended, resulted in the cutting short of two young lives. No doubt he will play the situation over and over in his mind, believing that if only he had done this...done that...things would have been different. Moreover, he will have to confront the impact of his actions on the girls’ families. This is a life sentence from which he may never be paroled.
How can we make sense of such an event, and what burden of responsibility does the trucker bear? As many Buddhist readers will know, the principle of Karma is often used to explain such happenings. On this view, both the girls were ‘reaping bad karma’ sown in previous lives, and the driver’s punishment was part of his karmic deserts. This all seems very neat, but is it really Karma that separates us from the lorry driver, or us from the girls who were killed? To me it seems a facile response to a desperately sad series of events.
It made me think of several occasions in my own life when I might have killed someone – all of them in road traffic incidents. Yet, so far, I have not done so. Is this because I am blessed? Is it that I have a great resource of merit that protects me? I really don’t know but I suspect not. What I do know is that a momentary lapse of reason, or concentration, could result in a tragic outcome that may destroy my own life and that of others too. This is a deeply sobering and humbling fact. However generous, compassionate, and wise we think we are, our lives can be overturned in a moment of clumsiness, a moment of distraction. Our lofty aspirations towards world peace, or universal awakening, may evaporate in a moment of unmindfulness.
When I find myself grumbling about the minor things that have not gone quite right – my printer has run out of ink, or the bank charged me a few pounds for going overdrawn - this may give me pause and put things in perspective. I am separated from tragedy by a fragile thread. I might have been that driver and the fact that I wasn’t does not make me morally superior – perhaps just lucky. My heart goes out to the trucker, the girls, and their families. May the families have the grace to forgive him, and may he have the strength to live on.