The Absurdity of Ignorance

When my family and I went camping at Custer State Park in South Dakota, the park rangers warned us repeatedly not to get near the bison. At first we couldn’t quite figure out why we needed this repetition. After all, getting up close and personal with a 6 foot tall, 2,000 pound bull with horns just seems like a bad idea in general. Who, we thought, is out there trying to mingle with the wildlife?

There’s always one, though, right: The guy at the Grand Canyon who jumps the fence for a better picture, the woman who goes swimming in the ocean by herself at 4:00 am, the kid who skis the black slopes in a snow storm.

And the woman who thinks she can pet the bison.

Evidently, the week before our visit, a tourist decided she wanted her picture taken with a bison calf. Unfortunately for her, the mother took exception and the park rangers had to clean up the mess.

Really, my 12 year old son asked. What made her think petting the bison was a good idea? And, in the sick, twisted way of our family, we made fun of that poor woman all week with a well-spring of bad plans (let’s feed the bears!) and mock decisions (I think a midnight hike is a great idea!) we simply knew better than to carry out.

Don’t get me wrong. We sympathized with her and her family. What happened to her (and the woman swimming in the ocean and the guy at the Grand Canyon and the skier in the snowstorm and anyone else whose risk failed) is horrific, unfortunate, and sad. Her family suffered and we recognize their pain. I’m sure a good psychologist (and probably a bad one) would tell you our jokes were about hiding our own fear or our attempt at keeping emotional distance (maybe both?). Mostly, though, as a family that watches South Park, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arrested Development, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and other shows where irony and political discourse alternate between silliness and social commentary, we’ve learned to laugh whenever possible to avoid crying all the time. Tragedy surrounds us but we don’t have to let it consume us.

But, and let’s be honest, there is a certain absurdity of ignorance that often blunts the emotional trauma we might feel for certain people. The Darwin Awards celebrates and highlights many of these moments, implying in essence that some deaths are beneficial to mankind by removing certain genes from the reproductive pool. Sure, such a thing might seem cruel, but, at the same time, it’s hard to sympathize with the guy who accidentally drinks gasoline, spits it on his clothes, and then lights a cigarette. Or the woman who wants to snuggle with a wild animal.

At the same time, these deaths can make us a bit reflective. I was driving to Austin last weekend, grinding my teeth through traffic on I-35 when we slowed to a crawl. About 100 feet ahead, I see a car and a truck. In the headlights, 3 or 4 people are standing around something and the pit of your stomach knows before your brain registers the possibility. Up ahead of them, I could see a green SUV, rusted in spots with dents in various areas that bespoke a kind of reckless driving history, sitting on the left side of the road up against the guardrail. No flashers, no lights. Not a great place to stop or breakdown.

And a terrible place to get out of the car. On a freeway. At night. With cars going 70 miles an hour and four lanes to cross before you find the safety of the shoulder.

But he tried. Even at 5 mph, you can see the death in his eyes, the onset of bruises that will never hurt, and the pallor of his skin. You can see the horror on the faces of the people around him.

And you wonder, without a lot of sympathy, just what the hell that guy was thinking.

Certainly, there are risks in this world worth taking. We can’t wrap ourselves in bubbles, wear helmets, or avoid dangerous situations. I often think that happy people have mastered the art of calculated risks. They will jump from a plane, climb a mountain, hike the trails, or swim the open seas, but they know the risks and have contingency plans when things go wrong. They also know when the risk is too great for the potential reward. There is, I think, a fine line between risk and stupidity.

Lest you think me cold-hearted, I feel for the guy and his family. No one deserves an untimely death. Ignorance shouldn’t be a mortal mistake. I find no joy or superiority in his passing.

Admittedly, though, I feel even more sympathy for the driver who hit him, a man who will remain haunted by the night he was dragged into the consequences of someone else’s stupidity. The true absurdity of ignorance, it seems to me, is not the bad choices people make that leave us shaking our heads or poking fun, but the unintended victims left to suffer because someone took the risk without the calculation.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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