I was reading an interesting article the other day about the difference in speed between passenger trains in the United States verses Europe and Japan. The article was from Jan. 9, 2013 in the Economist. The name of the article was “Better, faster and lighter.” This is what the opening paragraph had to say:
“America pays more for fast passenger trains than any other country. That’s partially because… safety rules promulgated by the Federal Railroad Administration require American passenger trains to be heavy enough to withstand crashes with giant freight trains…. European and Japanese passenger trains are much lighter and, consequently faster, than their American counterparts because lighter, faster trains are illegal in America.”
This article gave me pause. It made me contemplate America’s obsession with safety regulations. Now, I’m not suggesting we don’t need so many safety regulations; I’m only saying that the article caused me to contemplate why we have so many. And, as my thought process went on one of its typical journeys, it landed ultimately on this as the reason we require so many safety regulations in this country. I don’t believe it’s for the reason which some may call obvious – so that we are safe. I don’t believe that’s the reason for our obsession with safety regulations. I do believe that comes in a close second, but the number one reason I believe we are obsessed with safety regulations is our fear of lawsuits, of being held accountable for something that goes wrong.
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon that puts it rather succinctly. Charlie Brown and Linus are propped up on that trusty old brick wall where all of their philosophical conversations took place and Linus asks Charlie Brown, “why can’t we have fun anymore?” to which Charlie Brown so wisely avows, “Insurance won’t allow it.” (Sidebar comment – I originally wrote ‘to which Charlie Brown so wisely “asserts”‘, but I decided Charlie Brown is too wishy-washy to “assert” something, thus the word choice “avow”……)
Hang with me, here, because believe me, I’m not bashing lawyers or insurance agents. The issue goes deeper than that. It goes as deep as the core of all human beings. Ultimately, all the safety regulations, and the fear of lawsuits, goes back to one singular issue – when something goes wrong, we have a deep desire to find someone or something to blame.
This is what is at the heart of most lawsuits. Whose fault is it? Who is responsible for this tragedy? And, the more stringent the safety regulations, the less people there are to point their finger at.
The amount of guaranteed safety we enjoy is the positive outcome to all of the regulations. But, there is an interesting downside. With all the safety regulations in place, and so few people then who are ultimately responsible when something does go awry, it becomes more difficult to find a place to lay blame, and that reality can become maddening. Because, when tragedy finally does happen, because we know it strikes in the least expected moments and places, the first question people want to know the answer to is “whose fault is this?” or, to put the question in its basest form, “why did this happen?” And, “why?” is a troubling question, not so much because oftentimes there is no good answer, but exactly because there is never a good answer, depending on who’s asking the question.
I remember in 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart less than two minutes after lift off and the seven astronauts on board died. The people working at NASA needed to ask “why?” The engineers had to figure out the cause so that they could try to ensure that didn’t happen again. But, the family of those who perished asked “why?” for a different reason. And, my experience in the ministry has taught me that when those most personally affected ask the question “why?”, they’re not really looking for an answer; rather they are making a statement. They are saying, “I wish this never happened and that I could go back in time and change things.” Because, I have seen the looks on peoples faces and I know that even if I could explain to them exactly the reason why the tragedy occurred, they would not be satisfied. They might think finding a place to lay blame would be a consolation, but in the end it’s not, because it doesn’t change the reality.
A friend of mine once went into the hospital to have a simple, elective surgery. In the middle of the procedure something went terribly wrong and she ended up having to be flown to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN because all of a sudden her life was in jeopardy. Thankfully she made a full recovery. She and her husband told me later that people had asked them if they were going to sue the hospital. They said, “why?” A different way of asking that particular question; this time for the right reason. They were wise people. They knew it wasn’t going to change what happened. They had insurance so they didn’t have a financial need over which to sue the hospital. So, they chalked it up to “crap happens.”
I’m not trying to be morose or worse, flippant. I’m simply suggesting that we renew our willingness to accept the fact of life that bad things happen to all kinds of people. And, the same with good things. Good things happen to all kinds of people.
The trick, then, is to find a way to be content in all things. I read this recently (yes, it’s from the Bible – Philippians to be exact. Remember, I used to be a pastor…. ): “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” For the man who wrote those words, the answer to how to be content was Christ. It may or may not be that for you. The key is to find what it is that will bring you contentment and then cling to that.
If we all did, maybe they’d give us those faster, lighter passenger trains.
Peace, my friends, peace.