Midnight. Pitch black.

On these rural, winding roads are many carcasses–deer, rabbits, chipmunks, raccoons, and most of all, opossums. I’ve been driving this same route to and from work for almost three years, and I haven’t hit an animal yet. When one darts across the road I slow just the right amount, or swerve slightly, recalibrating efficiently, keeping a cool head.

But tonight I am just too tired and preoccupied. I’ve been at work since 7am, and I’m planning the next day’s tasks in my head, worried about this and that. When the possum leaps into the headlights, racing straight toward the front right wheel, I gasp and swerve sharply to the left.

Thump.

PLEASE let it not be dead PLEASE let it not be dead, I beg. I crane my neck to look in the rear-view mirror, but of course, I can see nothing in the dark.

The next morning’s drive to work tells the inevitable tale.

Dead.

If I had merely slowed down a little or just not even swerved–willing to let whatever would happen, happen–I probably would not have killed the creature. It’s funny–and by “funny” I mean “tragic”–sometimes we are so afraid of who we might become or what might happen that this fear creates the very reality we hope to avoid. It’s Oedipus trying to avoid the prophecy he will kill his father and marry his mother–he runs away, and in running away, runs toward.

I fear being a possum killer.
I try to avoid being a possum killer.
I become a possum killer.

It’s a perverse liturgy.

Resisting fear, perhaps, only strengthens it. Instead, allowing it to live, allowing it to pass through us without coming to reside in us, allowing ourselves to rest in non-doing as we experience exactly what we experience, not trying to create a particular outcome–that is, I think, what it means to be not afraid.

We give up control, we let go of our ideas about what “should” happen, we trust God to sort it out–even, and especially, the scary bits.

***
In the afternoon I drive home past Possum Point, as I think of it now. She’s gone. Some other animal–probably one of the family of buzzards roosting near my house–has lifted her off to another life as a feast.

I say a prayer for the possum.

Thank you for teaching me this, my friend.

Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

3 Comments

  • RLG says:

    I’m trying to figure out your sentiment, your perspective, from this article, and how far you carry it. Would it be the same if it was a person you killed on a dark rural road? I think your original sentiment, concern for the possum’s life and well being, would be the right sentiment. Of course some might say it was only a possum, pretty low on God’s totem pole of valued creatures. Then your latter sentiment seems to have kicked in. Let God take care of it. As you say, “it’s a perverse liturgy.” And yet, you seem willing to go with it. Is this a good lesson for all of life, or just some things? Or are there possibly lessons, driving lessons, that we can learn from even the death of a possum? What do you really think a prayer for the dead possum will accomplish? I’ll have to think about this a little more.

  • Sarina says:

    Dear RLG,

    Thank you for such thoughtful questions. I’ll try to address some of them, if not all. Let’s work backward:

    On the one hand, praying for the possum doesn’t “accomplish” anything–prayer, especially the prayer of gratitude, is simply the natural consequence of paying careful attention to our lives. Gratitude wells up, unbidden. On the other hand, prayers of gratitude do accomplish much. Gratitude atunes our hearts to God’s music. It balances us, brings us into harmony rather than the discordant jumble of worry and anxiety we often feel. I suppose I feel the possum has joined my communion of saints! And I’m grateful to have come to know her and be shaped by her.

    Your other questions are trickier. I’m obviously working with the dead possum as a metaphor, yes. But metaphors eventually break down under their own weight, so I don’t want to lean too heavily on this one. Caveat aside, I think I’m drawing two main ideas from the incident: First, that when we *fear* something we can sometimes make that very thing happen! In Daoism there’s an important idea of wu wei, or “non-doing.” Sometimes it is best to simply do nothing. Here, it would have been best to not jerk the wheel. Often, I think, we try to “fix” things we are worried will be problems, and in trying to fix them, we make them worse. Better to rest in non-action.

    The second idea I think I’m drawing from the incident is that it is important to feel grief and remorse at the death of the possum, definitely. It’s a living creature, and I caused its death. But I also can’t change the circumstances, no matter how much energy I spend on regret and “if onlys.” At a certain point, I have to allow that the possum has moved through death and into a new kind of life. I have been the unwitting agent of that change, and I can trust that God has everything, absolutely everything, under his care.

    As for whether this would apply had I hit a person, here the metaphor breaks down–although perhaps not entirely. Certainly, one would have crushing shame, guilt, remorse, self-hatred, grief. It would be important to allow those feelings to be real for as long as necessary, to move through them slowly. But it would probably also be important to allow yourself to one day start to live again–to let go of the desire to renarrate the past into a long list of “if only this.” It would probably be important to allow that you are not in ultimate control, even when you think you are.

    Thanks for engaging this post.

    • RLG says:

      Thanks, Sarina, for your perceptive response. Your comment on prayer (prayers of gratitude) is helpful, a good response to the person who has doubts in regard to prayer. Of course your comment in regard to this possum was, “I say a prayer for the possum,” making it sound as though it could have been a petitionary prayer. That’s a little different. None the less, good comment.

      I like your comment about “non-doing” as well. As you say, “sometimes it is best to simply do nothing.” But of course we most often know the helpfulness of doing nothing with hindsight, not with foresight. I doubt that coming into a dangerous or perilous situation it is wise to say or think, “I’ll just do nothing.” We do what we think is most prudent in that instant. We even act on instinct to avoid or prevent harm.

      And your comment about moving on, I agree. Whether a possum or a person, soon or later we should move on to face the challenges of life. Thanks again, Sarina, for your further response.

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