The airbag moment

It is Monday morning and you are heading into work, late for an important meeting. Traffic is banked up on the freeway, moving at a snail’s pace, and by the time you hit the city you’re ready to burst. Every muscle in your body is focused on that meeting, five minutes in the future. You are blasting through town like the proverbial maniac. Nothing is going to stop you now.

Until a woman with a baby stroller steps out onto the road in front of you.

You hit the brakes and swerve across the centre line – straight into the path of a bus! Hauling the steering wheel about – it’s too late! You slide to your doom in a chorus of tyres. At the last moment, the bus swerves – CRASH! – you are spinning like a top across the street. You bounce off vehicles, sideswipe the kerb, THUD! The car vaults to forty five degrees before slamming its tyres back on the bitumen.

You’re wedged behind the airbag, staring back up the street. Someone raps on the side window. You burst into tears.

If you’ve experienced a car accident, you’ll know how, in the blink of an eye, your whole sense of being can change. One moment you are homing in on a temporal target – a definite event in the future. The next moment you are alive and that’s the whole story. The shock of the event wakes you up. You find yourself at existential ground zero.

You might call it an airbag moment. Heidegger calls it a moment of vision.

Simple but important things come to mind. You realize that you are someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife, daughter, son. You want to call these people and tell them that you love them. You tell yourself that, from now on, you’ll put more effort into these relationships, for they are your most valuable assets in life. And for a brief, all-too-brief moment, you have the sense that all your powers and capacities, all your hopes and dreams and plans and visions, all the possibilities and opportunities and stuff that you take for granted on a daily basis – all of it is a gift. If you’d hit that bus you’d have lost it all and never appreciated the fullness of the gift. But you saw your death coming and lived to tell the tale.

Congratulations! You’ve had a moment of vision.

It happens in an Augenblick, says Heidegger – the blink of an eye. Suddenly, everything has changed. It is not that you are transported out of your concrete situation. On the contrary, you find that you are very much in the situation, but the situation itself has changed. Now it is your situation – the situation of a living individual taking stock of him or herself at a precise moment in life.

Heidegger describes this as an experience of fate. In the moment of vision, we come face to face with the ‘simplicity of our fate’.

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