A few weeks ago a friend came upstairs with me so I could show her something on my computer. On the way downstairs, she was ahead of me, so I did not see her fall — all of a sudden, she was on the floor at the foot of the stairs, trying not to cry but in obvious pain. I helped her over to the couch, put ice packs on her knees, and together we took inventory and determined that she did not need to go to the emergency room. Instead, I drove her home when she felt able to get up and made sure she got inside safely.
By the time I returned home the familiar refrain had begun. What had I done? Did I accidentally injure my friend? Was I to blame for her fall? I had to remind myself that the stairway was well lit and clear of obstacles, and that neither my dog nor I were close enough to trip her. Still, I worried that I had done something wrong. I’m not proud of the fact that I also worried that she might blame me. Would she suggest that my stairs were slippery or that my dog got underfoot?
My friend did not blame me; she went out of her way to remind me that she has a bad knee, which probably gave out as she was walking downstairs. She was injured, though — she broke a bone in her foot and must wear a heavy and uncomfortable therapeautic boot for the next few weeks.
I consider this preoccupation with blame, and my tendency to blame myself for anything bad that happens to anyone around me, to be a legacy of my long-ago car accident. A child ran in front of my car — I wasn’t speeding or distracted, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was my car that hit him; I bear a measure of responsibility even though I wasn’t at fault.
For years, I secretly thought I carried some darkness inside me that caused bad things to happen to other people. Why did that child run in front of my car and not some other car? Might another driver have been able to swerve and avoid the accident? These are questions without answers.
I am a scientist — I know the idea that I have a dangerous “vibe” or essence is ludicrous, but I believed it for a long time and still have to guard against these thought patterns. I also know that such ideas might serve me in some way. For instance, the notion that I am a dangerous person reminds me to be especially careful, to minimize the chances of future accidents. Also, accidents demonstrate that people have far less control over the world than we generally like to believe. It’s scary to acknowledge how much I cannot control. When I blame myself, at least I give myself back a measure of personal power and control.
Instead of ruminating about my friend’s accident and my role in it, I am trying to simply be a good friend to her — help her out around the house, walk her dog, listen with caring when she complains about the discomfort of the boot she must wear and how much she misses going to the gym. I couldn’t prevent her from falling, but I can control how I respond to her accident, so that is what I choose to focus on.