On Vulnerability and (Vicarious) Experience

On May 2, 2018, my view of life and my role within it was transformed when I received a phone call from the emergency room at Utah Valley Hospital. My 14-year old daughter had been hit by a car. The distracted driver had failed to notice her in the crosswalk. Though he only clipped her with his sideview mirror, the force of the impact was sufficient to break off the end of her femur. The injury has since required surgery and months of physical therapy, but the prognosis is good. Had the car been only a few inches closer, the injuries would surely have been more severe and potentially fatal.

The first days after the accident I didn’t allow myself to feel. Instead I busied myself with the details—canceling our planned flights to Russia, researching the injury, finding doctors, trying to figure out the insurance. But once the “business” was settled, I was humbled both by the miracle of my daughter’s relative fortune and by this latest reminder of mortality and my vulnerability to it. How close I had come to losing my child!

I admit that in the weeks following the accident, I often asked, “Why me?” But the question was meant neither as reproach nor complaint. Why had my daughter survived this accident when others have not? What had I done to deserve this miracle? And the answer was unsettling: I had done nothing. I could do nothing.

In 2017, Chief Justice Roberts was asked to give a commencement speech at his son’s middle school. I was struck by the message. Instead of wishing the graduates good luck, he instead wished them bad luck: “I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”Bad luck, after all, will come into our lives whether we wish it or not. Yet too often we prefer to think that we have earned our positions in life, our health, our education. We downplay the role of circumstance or the providence of God, attributing our success to our own efforts and virtues.

As Chief Justice Roberts reminds, however, becoming aware of our vulnerability is important. I’ve described how personal experience made me aware of my own frailty. But literature can also draw our attention to our vulnerabilities. As Joyce Carol Oates says, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”Literature has allowed me to do just that. With Anna Akhmatova I have grieved the arrests of loved ones. As I’ve read Chekhov’s “The Man in a Case,” I’ve faced up to the ways in which I am constrained by my concern for “propriety.” And, along with Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, I’ve contemplated whether my life has been meaningful as I’ve faced certain death. In these and other cases, I’ve slipped into the soul of another, experienced their tragedies and triumphs, and vicariously experienced their vulnerability and transformation.

Vulnerability is a condition of mortality, whether we choose to embrace it or to ignore it. It is precisely our vulnerability, in the form of our mortality, that imbues our lives with meaning. Our choices matter because our time is limited. As Chief Justice Roberts points out, accepting our vulnerability allows us to experience compassion. When we recognize the reality that, but for our good fortune, we could be in the same situation as another individual, we can no longer judge him or her.

My hope is that I will remember my vulnerability long after my daughter’s trauma has faded into the past. I’m also thankful that literature affords me a possibility to do this without personal tragedy.

This post was written by Professor Jennifer Bown, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow.

[1] Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, “’I Wish You Bad Luck.’ Read Supreme Court Justice John Roberts’ Unconventional Speech to His Son’s Graduating Class,” Time, http://time.com/4845150/chief-justice-john-roberts-commencement-speech-transcript/.

[2] Joyce Carol Oates, “Literature as Pleasure, Pleasure as Literature” in Antaeus (Autumn 1987).

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1 Comment

  1. Harold H Hendricks says:

    Thanks for your eloquent and thought-provoking article. I had not heard of your daughter’s accident and I wish her well. As a parent these things hit us more deeply than when we suffer our own injuries and you have provided a great glimpse of wisdom for us all.

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