Recently, a close racing friend of our family was killed in a tragic highway accident while driving his racing rig (a toter home and trailer) to an event. I discussed the accident at length on Episode 131 of the Sportsman Drag Racing Podcast.
Kyle, the 30-year-old driver who passed away, was accompanied on that trip by his father, his fiancé, and his sister. While they each survived the accident, they’re all dealing with physical injuries of their own. As you might imagine, they’re also dealing with significant emotional hurt. Among the feelings of grief, sadness, mourning, anger, confusion, and many more is undoubtedly an underlying element of guilt.
Kyle fell asleep at the wheel. So you know everyone in that vehicle has thought to themselves: “Why didn’t I drive?” “Why wasn’t I keeping him awake?” Or, “Why did we go to that race?” “Why did we leave at the time that we did?” The list goes on and on. And while it’s a more vivid feeling for those involved, the guilt extends to everyone in Kyle’s life.
Another family friend who was going to the same event feels like he encouraged the Ellis’s to come. What if he hadn’t? Kyle’s father was in the hospital earlier in the week. What if the staff hadn’t discharged him when they did? What if the promoters of the event had been less courteous on the phone to encourage them not to come? Or simply raised the entry fee so that the race wasn’t as appealing? Even I feel partially responsible (guilty) because I feel like my own on-track success was a small reason for the family’s desire to travel to some of the bigger events (they had always been content to compete at our local track in prior years).
Most of those hypothetical questions sound ridiculous, but it’s something that everyone in the Ellis family’s life feels on some level: We all could have done SOMETHING to prevent this. We SHOULD have done something to prevent this. That’s guilt. And we live with it. But why is guilt this universal emotion that we feel, almost regardless of our distance from the accident?
In her book titled Why Religion, Elaine Pagels had this to say about guilt: “I’d rather feel guilty than helpless… Guilt, however painful, often masks a deeper agony, even more unbearable.”
In other words, we feel guilt because, as hard as it is, guilt is easier to wrap our minds around than the idea that we don’t have any control – or that no one has any control. It’s easier to beat ourselves up for not doing something (however illogical in the moment) to “save” the people we care about than it is to accept the idea that life is fragile, death is random, and we don’t always have a say in the matter. Guilt is awful; but helplessness is unbearable. The reason we cling to guilt is because it allows us to operate under the illusion that we control our own fate (and/or the fate of others).
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