There are a few things that I consider kryptonite to my soul, among them is the feeling of helplessness. I like to be that steely faced guy who can see something going down, turn off emotional responses and sort it the fuck out.
Lost your cat? Let’s go find it. Broken arm? I’ll hold it in place til the ambulance arrives to splint it. Dude trying to bludgeon another dude to death? I’ll dive right into the middle of that shit fight and ask questions later.
Being in a situation I am powerless to change, powerless to fix and powerless to control hits me in a way nothing else really seems to. I have an intense need to make things better and when I have to step back and just watch Hell come to life, I feel like a failure.
The other night a friend came over. We decided to trip 40min into Little-Big Smoke and pick up Chinese for dinner. The country road to town is narrow and full of potholes. Surrounded by endless paddocks and gum trees, the only interesting thing to see on a dark moonless night is the sea of stars that open up the sky and bring far away galaxy’s to life.
We were chatting, about what I don’t remember. I looked up towards the heavens and noticed an odd shadow blocking the stars, barely visible in the pitch black sky. As we got closer it appeared plume of thick black smoke billowing above a distant line of pine trees.
It’s coming to the end of burn off season in rural Australia. We only get a few months a year to light our piles up between the dry heat and blistering winds before the risk of accidentally starting a bushfire makes it too dangerous again.
We looked at it harder. My friend commented that someone must be burning off something they really shouldn’t by the look of that smoke. I agreed and joked that the way it was billowing up it looked like in the movies when a plane had crashed.
As we rounded the next corner we suddenly saw what was causing the smoke. A car was pulled off the left side of the road with its hazard lights on and on the right there was a huge truck completely ingulfed in flames. I caught my friends eye for a second, she’d lost a partner to a truck crash 12 years ago and in that moment I saw her body react as the grief all flooded back.
In the darkness a man paced along the road side, his shadowy figure silhouetted by the bright orange flames, hands interlocked behind his head in a stance of complete exasperation.
We pulled off the road and I yelled out the window “is anyone inside?” That moment, waiting for the answer… It was a split second that felt like a lifetime. The truck was an inferno, if someone was inside… They’d already be dead. There was no way of getting to them, no way of saving them.
The man said nothing for a moment, lost in his own horror. I jumped out of the car and raced toward the man, a woman’s voice piped up from further back, “keep back! It’s going to blow again!” Another said “there’s no one in it, he’s the driver”.
I yelled out to my friend to move the car further back, just as she reversed up the road the truck exploded and a huge ball of fire burst from it. The man let out an anguished cry. He was shaking.
I asked what had happened and he told me he’d smelled a burning electrical smell, found somewhere to pull off the road and flames suddenly started coming into the cabin. It was his own truck, quite new, his pride and joy as well as his livelihood. Now it was all going up in smoke.
The other couple that had pulled over with us had already called emergency services and the drivers wife so we tried to comfort the devastated man while we waited. We all told him that the fact he got out physically unharmed was all that mattered, that insurance would pay for the truck where as nothing could replace him.
But he just shook his head, this was his only income, he had a family to feed and he felt like everything was lost. I tried to think ‘how would M act in this situation?’ So I tried to validate the hugeness of this for him at the same time as reassure him that his family needs him safe more than anything else. But there was nothing I could do to fix it for him, nothing that could take that pain away.
His wife arrived a good 25 minutes before emergency services did. She ran to him and they just held each other watching their only source of income burn to ashes. The rural fire service finally turned up, struggling to get enough members to the call out. They are also limited to 4 people in a truck because of Covid which really slowed things down. Thank goodness there wasn’t any life in danger.
Another 15minutes passed before the police turned up. After telling them what had happened I commented on the ridiculous length of time it took them to get there and the cop looked at me with a lost look in his eyes and said they’d all been in another tiny town on the opposite side of Little-Big Smoke at a car accident with a fatality.
I acknowledged that he’d obviously had a really shitty night and apologised for having a go at him. He just sighed and said “it’s part of the job”. I said of course I knew that, but it’s still shit that he has to see those awful things, job description or not, and I thanked him for doing that hard work so many others cannot. He looked like he was on the verge of tears at that point so I just added a thank goodness the driver of the truck is uninjured and if he didn’t need anymore information from us I’d be on my way.
Someone complimented me later for stopping and trying to help but the compliment stung, because of course you aren’t going to drive past that scene and NOT stop. Also, I COULDN’T help. I like to think that I’d have somehow rushed into that blazing truck and pulled the driver to safety if it had been required, but when I think about it, sadly my urge to assist is born out of selfishness rather than selflessness.
I’m not some saintly person who is trying to create peace on earth and a better world, I mean I’m not opposed to those things at all, they’d obviously be great, but Im just saying it’s not from the goodness of my heart. My motives are far more for personal gain than they probably should be.
When it comes down to it I feel the need to help, to fix things, because I’m trying to fill a hole guilt has burned inside of me for all the things I couldn’t protect myself and others from as a child. I re enact scenarios to try and somehow change a past I can’t let go of. It’s not that I want to help, it’s that I can’t stand the guilt of not helping and fear of feeling that guilt far out weighs any fear of being hurt or killed in the process.
Time travel hasn’t been invented yet, I can’t physically go back to childhood and explain to my younger self what is and isn’t my own guilt to hold. However I wonder if those emotional parts of me that hold that fear now can somehow be reached and soothed. But then again, if I let go of the guilt that drives me to help, what would I be left with?