One vacation my family traveled more than 2000 miles on the interstate highway system -- far longer than we would have liked but given our itinerary, unavoidable. And during the drive we saw a number of interesting and unexpected sights, like the "herd" or whatever you call a bunch of camel in the middle of Kansas. But we were astonished to see the number of roadside monuments marking the locations of fatal automobile accidents. They appeared on major highways, busy intersections, side streets, and two-lane state highways. No thoroughfare was too large nor too small to play host to one of these crosses.
Many times the crosses appeared singly, but not always. Frequently there were two crosses side by side, occasionally there were three in a row, and one spot on I-70 in Missouri had six crosses arranged in two rows of three surrounded by flowers. At each monument we passed, Presbytera and I would make our stavro and pray for the repose of the person there remembered. In a couple of places near our former home in Omaha, I recalled some of the specifics about the accidents, one in particular in Iowa evoking the memory of a multiple-car crash that claimed the lives of two little twin girls a week before Christmas.
I suppose these monuments are more than passing blurs to me since I am reminded each time of the tragic passing of my own dear 16 year-old God-daughter a few years ago in an automobile accident. The day after this tragedy I stood at the impromptu shrine erected by her many school friends and said the Trisagion prayers for the dead with one of the Orthodox priests from the area. The pall of grief and confusion was palpable as her assembled friends attempted to wrest some meaning from her passing. So I have more than a "passing" interest in these roadside monuments.
As I reflected on the frequency with which these crosses passed by our minivan as the miles rolled on behind us, I was struck by how dimly aware we have become of the impact left by the many thousands of auto fatalities a year on U.S. streets and highways. The numbers are staggering. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety records more than 40,000 auto-related deaths in 1999, the last year for which statistics are available. Of this number, 14% or 5,648 were teen drivers. This is roughly equivalent to a daily toll of two fully-loaded school buses at a toll of 110 lives, or two jumbo jets crashes a week at a toll of 775 lives lost, or a monthly 9/11 WTC disaster at a toll of 3360 lives. Auto fatalities are the number one cause of teen deaths in the U.S. Every hour in this country 4.5 people have their lives abruptly ended in our nation's streets and highways.
If these deaths were to occur in any other way, for instance in school buses, airliners, or high-rises, we would rise up as a society and demand that changes be made immediately to halt the carnage. The images of 9/11 will be forever seared into our minds, and rightly so. But overlaid against the backdrop of 40,000 annual highway deaths a year, one must begin to question why there is no hue and cry of proportional magnitude at this tragedy. I had scarcely returned home from vacation when I learned of an accident involving children of a friend of mine. One of the boys' best friends was killed, two more remain in critical condition, and another faces an extensive recovery period.
Why do we so readily and unquestioningly accept certain things as "the cost of doing business" in the society we have created for ourselves? For example, we accept estrangement from family and loved ones as we put in long hours at the office because "that's what ya gotta do to get ahead." We go crazily into debt and clutter up our lives with piles of consumer goods because success is determined by how much "stuff" we collect and what our neighbors think of our collections. We have relegated the carnage of one and a half million abortions every year in this country to the realm of politics because "it's impolite to speak of such things in public."
Why is it that we tend to fixate upon rather trivial matters while largely ignoring other more weighty issues? We spend more time obsessing over a celebrity wedding or how much money the latest block-buster film grossed in its opening than we do on other issues that directly affect us. Perhaps this is one way of ignoring the unpleasant side of modern life, by submitting to a kind of voluntary amnesia. After all, no one wants to be accused of being a "wet blanket" by acknowledging such unpleasantries.
It is completely understandable that we feel powerless to change our present-day realities No one person can reverse a societal trend. But must we blithely accept the death of so many of our friends, neighbors, and children with a shrug and a sigh? I pray not. At some point we must be willing to run counter to the prevailing winds of culture and economy and wake up to what's happening around us, to at least notice it. Christ said; "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing and yet not one of them falls to the ground but that Your heavenly Father knows it altogether? Fear not, little flock, you are of more worth than many sparrows."
And if our Father in heaven notices our passing and mourns our loss, should we do any less? As Christians we are called to exercise discernment and discretion. This might mean making tough or unpopular choices, such as not providing our 16 year-olds with fast cars and little oversight because "everyone else has one." We may not be able to change the direction that the wide stream of society is heading but neither do we have to drift aimlessly along on the ever-changing currents of pop culture. And as Christians we are most certainly called to be awake to what is going on around us every day and to see the world through the eyes of faith. This means that we don't lose ourselves in the vapid entertainment-driven culture of post-modern life, we don't become despondent when the stock market tanks and stays deflated for months on end. And this means that we let ourselves grieve as our Lord grieves at the sight of shipwrecked humanity.
The eyes of faith through which we are called to see the world around us are quickly moved to prayerful tears at the sight of such things as roadside crosses and any other such remembrances of the many ways in which human life is so uselessly squandered in the organized chaos of 21st century "civilization." As the salt, light, and leaven of world, we must take up the tools we have been given to lovingly confront the world and effect positive change. St. Paul reminds us that; "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds." And that, I suppose, is the point of this somewhat rambling article. That we roust ourselves from the groggy stupor of apathy and more quickly, more reflexively, jump into the fray by offering our prayers to God on behalf of "strangers," such as those remembered by crosses at the side of the road.
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the assistant priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado.