On the preciousness of life

When I was in high school, one of my best friends had a Volkswagen Jetta that his parents bought him. It was not a particularly nice car, but it wasn’t a terrible car either. My friend used to take this car out late at night and race it down the highways and over the Gold Star Memorial Bridge. He told me that he got his car up to speeds of 120 miles per hour on those dark roads, the lights of the city glinting off the windshield as the lane markers disappeared into a blur. I don’t know if I believe him that his car ever got up to those speeds, but that is what he told me.

I don’t know why he raced his car like that. He didn’t have a death wish, as far as I could tell. He was otherwise a model young man: a nice kid with a top-notch GPA, a real knack for sailing (yes, I went to a private school), and a girlfriend who he definitely thought he loved. But, nevertheless, he regularly endangered himself and everyone else who happened to be on the road at the same time as him for no reason other than his own entertainment.

Given the way I’ve set up this anecdote, it probably would be most impactful if I ended it with something like, “And one day he lost control, spun out, and crashed. Jeeze, I miss him.” But, unfortunately for my story and fortunately in literally every other way, that never happened. He never faced any consequences for his racing. He never crashed his car or hurt himself or someone else. As far as I know, he never even got a speeding ticket. And, last I heard, he’s a married engineer with a house somewhere in the greater Boston area who presumably drives at around the speed limit, although we’ve lost contact so I can’t be sure.

A lot of us did stupid things like that in high school. We raced cars, drank too much, bought drugs from strangers, stole petty items for fun, antagonized cops. Most of us got away without too many lasting consequences. Some of us didn’t. A couple of us didn’t get away at all.

But, most of us did get away. My friend certainly did. So I’m not sure why his particular stupid action sticks in my mind, except that I think about it every now and again when I see people speeding. Every time I think about it, it honestly makes me upset. In high school, it seemed a little stupid, but, ultimately, a tradeoff between excitement and safety that it was his prerogative to make. Now that I’m almost twice the age I was then, it seems so much worse. Not only did he obviously not have the right to risk other people’s lives, he didn’t even have the right to risk himself. I mean, he was 16, and he was going to die over… yay car go fast?  Would that be fair to his parents and his grandparents, who doted on him as an only child? Would it be fair to his friends? Would that be fair to his future self, destined to live a sedate life in the greater Boston metro area?

But you just don’t think like that as a young man. The life that everyone has invested so much to give you seems cheap and meaningless. School and work and hobbies and expectations and obligations seem like a cage, and you just want to rattle them by any means necessary, throw yourself against the bars and see if they give way or you do. You’re not old enough yet to be nostalgic, or to see how good you have it even if some parts suck, or to appreciate just how much went into the mundane life you take for granted. Your life seems pointless, and other people’s do, too.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in the realm of the news recently. I hate wading into politics, and I don’t think my take is going to add anything to the reams of pointless ink that have already been spilt. All I’d say is that when I was younger, I think I had a lot more tolerance for death and destruction and dying for a cause or for no cause at all. Now, it all seems sad and very rarely worth it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve realized that life is precious. It’s a cliche but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful. People living happy, peaceful lives with their loved ones is generally good, and anything that threatens that is, in general, bad. It would have to take clearing an extraordinarily high bar to find exceptions to those generalities, and almost anything that people usually use as an exception to those generalities doesn’t cut it.

And maybe it’s offensive to compare the noble causes that other young men are dying and killing for to my friend’s need for speed. Those young men are probably very certain that their cause is an exception to my generalities about killing and dying being bad, and they certainly have plenty of older, purportedly wiser people who tell them that it is. 

But so did my friend, believe it or not (you didn’t think Top Gear or Need for Speed or The Fast and the Furious were supposed to be purely fantastical, did you?). And all I can think is how stupid it would have been if he had died “doing what he loved” or killed someone for “what he believed in”, and how much worse it all would have been.