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By the Skin of Our Teeth

In praise of denial

By Richard Handler

One blustery evening during a cold Toronto winter, with snowflakes falling and my head tucked deep into my coat, I crossed a busy street and was almost slammed by a streetcar. This is the story of a nonevent, the sort of unreality that rarely makes the news. The world is full of them: near hits and misses. We narrowly avoid disaster all the time, and usually just stuff it all away; relegate it to some remote corner of our minds.

I'd just finished eating dinner with a friend at a Chinese restaurant on Spadina Avenue. We had to cross the road, which has long stretches without traffic lights. My friend and I got halfway across to the thin, raised strip that divides the avenue. I was about to continue across when a streetcar (yes, we still have them) came barreling by. Sure, I usually check over my shoulder when I cross the street, but not this time.

Had the streetcar sped by one second earlier and a couple of feet closer, I'd have walked smack into it, making me the tragic accident victim on the evening news. All sorts of people who never knew me would shake their heads and . . . sigh.

But I pulled back, just in time. Whew! What flashed as the streetcar rattled by wasn't my life, as people often say: it was the many other times I'd almost been killed by cars, or vast, lumbering trucks, or those kamikazes of the city, the local bicycle couriers with their killer mountain bikes.

I suddenly thought back to the day, years ago, when I was hitchhiking in California as a pickup full of drunks raced up the road. Suddenly the pickup veered wildly toward me. I stepped back, narrowly avoiding being hit. The crowd in the truck got a big kick out of my scrambling panic, laughing as they drove off. Once I calmed myself down, I never thought about it much. It was just a tiny, improvised moment of attempted murder. But it all-at-once came back to me in flaming Technicolor that evening outside the Chinese restaurant on Spadina.

I flashed on all those stories I'd heard about people who'd unthinkingly stopped by the side of a road and got out of their cars only to be picked off by some vehicle speeding by at 70 miles an hour. I met a woman once who told me about her brother who'd stopped to check his tire, and then was gone. Just like that. He left a wife, children, things to do. Like a tiny star in an enormous universe, he just . . . expired.

The Spanish architect Antoni Gaud[Cyrillic TE] was killed by a streetcar in Barcelona before his great cathedral was finished. His creation is a marvel: full of spires and nooks and crannies. Millions of tourists see and admire it and are told this story by tour guides. Others were left the job of finishing Gaud[Cyrillic TE]'s soaring ice-cream cone of a building. Had I been killed, somebody else would be found to cut my lawn and take my job in no time.

Of course, it can also happen the other way. Instead of potential victim, you can be the casual killer. Years ago, I was gabbing intensely to a friend while driving and pausing at a stop sign. Just before I absent-mindedly stepped on the gas, my friend yelled, "Watch it!" A 9-year-old boy with a backpack was crossing right in front of us, barely visible over the car's hood. Had my friend not cried out, I'd have hit that boy. He might never have lived, gotten married, and had children, divorced and had more children, then retired at the end of a long life.

Everyone knows that life is capricious. The Bible tells us that rain falls upon the just and unjust. After slaughtering millions, Stalin died uneventfully in his sleep. We all know that one tiny misstep can cause horrible consequences. Faced with the dreadful news from around the planet every day, we're increasingly inured to the precariousness of other people's lives. But what really struck me after staring down the streetcar was that I was almost killed (once again), and it was no big deal. Near misses are like invisible ink: immediate and palpable one moment, gone the next. Sure, I was a little shocked to have been nearly rubbed out, but the feeling didn't last long.

It wasn't just me: my friend brushed it off even faster than I did. He'd been in the middle of a story he wanted to finish--about some complication at work, a power struggle with a colleague. Damned if a near-death experience would get in the way of his telling me the end of his story! And what a good story it was, full of intrigue and comic touches. No doubt, the next day, my friend would hardly remember that I'd almost been killed. My near death was just an anecdote--less interesting than his struggle with a workmate.

How could I blame him? Our short-term memory flushes out the disasters that don't happen. Otherwise, we'd be even crazier than we are, filing away millions of near misses and catastrophes.

I live in Toronto, not Baghdad. I don't fear to go out at night. I don't have to worry about sitting in cafes and being killed by suicide bombers. But the world can be a dangerous place wherever you live. The skin of civilization looks increasingly thin all the time, as our uncertainties grow larger and larger with each new threat, each blaring headline.

So, thank the Lord (or evolution) for repression, which, most of the time, is our much-overlooked psychological salvation. We have an enormous capacity to wipe the slate clean every day. If we're lucky, we can start our lives over and over again, untouched by the horrors we've absorbed the previous day, much like the character in Groundhog Day.

This imperviousness to change can be the bane of therapists. Why can't people shift out of their well-worn emotional patterns? we ask in frustration. Why can't our clients face the reality of their lives?

The truth is that most of us live our lives within the paddings of illusion, swaddling ourselves in its soft, cozy wool. That may not be what a Buddha or a saint would aim for, but it's one solution to the perils of this life, albeit a modest, human one. Reality will bear down on us soon enough.

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada. Contact: rhandler@sympatico.ca. Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to letters@psychnetworker.org.

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