January 25, 2011

From 60 to Zero in 0.4 Seconds. ~ Audrey Mangan

Dukes of Hazzard.

How I learned more about myself from a car accident than four years in the ivory tower.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve recently been feeling a bit like Alexis Bledel in the recent chick flick Post Grad. Though we both graduated college without a high profile job lined up, I feel more akin to her character Ryden because of our shared frustration over an untimely car crash. Hers came on the way to a big interview, while mine happened just as I was getting myself settled and adjusted to living in a new city. But let’s face it; is there ever a good time to get in an accident?

My little Volkswagen Golf had been my baby; only a few months ago I’d started scouring Craigslist looking for the perfect car—small, good gas mileage, able to fit my skis—and had scored a great deal on the silver beauty. It was my first big purchase, and after signing the papers and holding the keys in my hand, I felt like I’d passed a major post-grad milestone and was one step closer to being a ‘real’ person, whatever that is.

But shortly before Christmas, my pride in my self-sufficiency was ripped out from under me. The saying goes that everyone thinks they’ll go through life without getting in an accident, but only now do I realize that I was one of them, and was a naïve for thinking so. Directly after the collision I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened. It took me about thirty seconds of sitting in the middle of a busy intersection with the (thankfully empty) passenger side of my car completely crushed to realize that this meant I was not, in fact, invincible.

What surprised me most was the physics of the collision. I was genuinely surprised at how far my car had bounced backwards on impact. It didn’t register for a few minutes, after getting out of the car and inspecting the damage, how incredibly lucky it was that both the other driver and I were unhurt. But even as I was processing the scariest moment of my life, my mind jumped to how this disrupted my routine. My first thought, after hoping to God that the other driver was OK, was “I can’t afford a higher insurance premium,” followed almost immediately by, “There go my dinner plans.”

And there goes my self-sufficiency, or so I believed at first. I’d been so caught up in successfully navigating an imagined post-college gauntlet of securing a job, car and apartment that I let this bump in the road throw me for a loop. I felt like my life was falling apart at the seams.

It wasn’t the money that freaked me out—I soon learned from the empathetic insurance agent handling my claim that I’d actually come out making a small profit. No, I was paralyzed by the prospect of having to go through another long winded car search, and mourned the loss of the clean slate I felt I’d earned by moving to a new city to start the next phase of my life.

Growing up, I learned through experience that hard work would eventually equate to the achievement of goals I set for myself. I didn’t have to worry about chance accidents completely disrupting my progress towards them because everything was taken care of for me until I was 21 years old.

Only since graduating have I realized that not everyone has room, board, and tuition covered by their parents, or gets out of college debt free. I was responsible for nothing but myself and my grades, and owned nothing more than my textbooks and the Indian saris decorating my walls. When I did need to leave my campus bubble, I had the convenience of Boston’s subway system at my fingertips.

Now, two months after buying my car and moving to a new city, I felt like I’d failed in a major, irrevocable way. It’s odd; I’d never owned a car before and hadn’t missed it then, but now that the symbol of my ascent into post-graduate autonomy had been destroyed, I imagined that I’d moved a few spaces backwards in the game of Life. It was an irrational and materialistic reaction, but I couldn’t help it.

Life. Photo courtesy of meddygarnet.

Fast forward a month to last Wednesday morning, the date of my traffic court appearance. While waiting in line with dozens of other nervous traffic violators, I tried to gather myself and gauge how I felt differently now that I’d been commuting and traveling for a few weeks without my own mode of transportation. Here are some things I learned, both practical and philosophical:

  1. I could still be self-sufficient without a car (and I don’t plan on replacing it in the near future). RTD and a bike can take you pretty much anywhere. And with the Google Maps trip planner on my fancy new smartphone, I can access the bus schedule wherever I am. Thank goodness Boulder has such wide bike lanes. I’ve even incorporated errands into my morning runs.
  2. Relying on public transportation to get around town, despite taking longer for each trip, has actually made me waste less time. I only run an errand if I really need to, and will wait to do so until I have several to do at once.
  3. At 22 years, I have led an incredibly blessed life. As cliché as it sounds, it took getting in a car accident to make me see that not everyone has such supportive and understanding parents, or such a generous extended family.
  4. I am not entitled to things working out the way I expect them to. Deep down I always knew this, but it didn’t make the consequences of crashing my car any easier. But my ability to deal with the unexpected, both logically and emotionally, has improved greatly since dealing with this first disruption to my routine.
  5. When push comes to shove, I’m actually more resilient and resourceful than I gave myself credit for. This is largely thanks to the fact that:
  6. People are incredibly sympathetic and generous with their help if you just ask for it. Nearby friends and roommates have been giving me rides whenever I need to get somewhere out of reach of the bus, even taking me to the grocery store when I need to make a trip bigger than the size of my backpack. And carpooling with friends actually gives me an extra few minutes to catch up with people that I otherwise wouldn’t have had (I have yet to confirm with these friends if they are as grateful as I am for chauffeuring me around).
  7. The loss of a possession, no matter how integral to the ease with which I move through life, is not the end of the world.  It’s just a thing. Success is not measured by the acquisition of big-budget items.

Above all, I’ve learned that I have to trust my struggle. It may not make sense at the time, but every bump in the road that sends me reeling will end up making me stronger in the long run.

Photo courtesy of Clinton Steeds.

Audrey Mangan is a recent east coast college grad-turned-Coloradoan trying to find new ways to enjoy the outdoors every day.
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