It happened, as many near disasters do, in an instant.
One moment I enjoying a great ride on my bike, enjoying the thrill of blasting down a fire trail in the forest, minding my own business and soaking up the adrenaline. The sun was shining, the temperature about perfect for a morning on a mountain bike. Everything was as it should be in my world.
And then a wallaby shot out of the bushes in front of me.
In an instant the human brain did what I find utterly astonishing…without so much as a conscious thought I knew without shadow of doubt that I would hit that wallaby. It’s speed and trajectory, and my own would intersect perfectly a handful of metres in front of me. It would be injured, and I would crash and find myself tumbling down the track protected only by a lyrca t-shirt and plastic skid-lid. All this registered in a split second as my painful future bounded toward me and I raced toward it.
I almost fancy that we made eye contact, the wallaby and I, and we each knew that what was about to happen would be costly for both of us.
In the moment I was barely conscious of anything other than alarm, fear, slamming brakes, a skidding bike and watching the wallaby scrabble wildly for grip as it made its own internal calculations and responded to the apparently inevitable. I don’t recall thinking about braking, or steering, or balance – but it all happened. The brain and body are, no doubt, an incredible combination.
Brake pads bit on the disc, rubber grabbed dirt and I managed to slow slightly and change direction.
The wallaby found traction on the slippery surface and succeeded in making a turn of its own.
And we slipped past one another, inches apart, hearts racing, living to ride and bounce another day. The wallaby was gone, I continued on down the trail with only an even further elevated heart beat and a deeply breathed “oh my…that was close” to show for what might have been.
They’re sometimes described as ‘sliding doors’ moments – when a situation resolves in one way that could so easily have gone another.
Sometimes sliding doors moments are a conscious choice between two options that lead us in different directions (and remind us of the M Scott Peck poem “The Road Less Travelled”), while in others (like this one) it’s not so much conscious choice as circumstance.
Sometimes sliding doors moments are about big, vital, life-changing events and circumstances, while in others (like this one) they’re much less important in the grand scheme of things.
Sometimes we’re very aware of sliding doors moments as they pass by, while in others we’re completely oblivious to what might have happened, how life might have changed if one thing had been a tiny bit different.
When we’re aware of these moments, it can be a bit of a natural human tendency to get caught up in the act of imagining ‘what if’.
What if I had (or hadn’t) accepted that job offer?
What if the cyclone had turned north instead of south?
What if I’d been brave enough to lay it all on the line when opportunity knocked?
What if I hadn’t made that tiny mistake in the crucial moment of the game?
What if I hadn’t been able to avoid the wallaby?
It seems to me that there’s nothing wrong with those kind of acts of the imagination. They can help us process possibilities differently in the future, make better choices, react more quickly, be more prepared.
Maybe I’ll ride my bike just a little differently in the future, more conscious of keeping an eye out for wallabies so I can react just a little earlier than I did this time.
But there’s also the possibility of getting caught up in too much regret, too much ‘wishing’ it had been different. Maybe I won’t enjoy the freedom of riding a bike in the bush if I’m constantly in fear of things out of my control. In an extreme case, maybe I’d stop riding my bike altogether because of what might have happened (but didn’t) on that particular Monday morning.
So it seems, as is usually the case, that the right thing to do is to find a balance. A balance between learning from experience, pondering the consequences of sliding doors moments, but recognising too that changing the past is an impossibility, predicting the future is almost the same, and that all we can really do is live in each moment that is in front of us.
I have no doubt that the next time I roll down that particular trail I’ll have in mind that my wallaby friend might be about to reappear, and I’ll probably ride a tiny bit more carefully. Maybe it will make me a better rider, more aware of my circumstances.
But I won’t stop riding, and I won’t allow myself to get lost in constant fear of what might happen. I’ll find balance in processing this particular sliding doors moment.
At the same time though, I’m processing some big life decisions. Choices about career, and directions, and values and priorities. And these have been long, hard things to think about. And truth be told, despite months, years of effort, I’m not there yet. There are sliding doors moments in this part of my story too – opportunities accepted or rejected, courage displayed or not. Some I’m aware of, and some probably not. And finding balance in this set of sliding doors seems so much harder than when it comes to bike riding and wallabies. I’m probably stuck in my own imagination, cursed by the possibilities and the sense of ‘what if’ when I’m thinking about about past, present and future choices.
And so, in a strange way and potentially at a crucial time, a near miss with a wallaby is helping me find a little perspective. I’m reminded of the importance of balance in learning from but not being captive to my own imagination in the wake of sliding doors moments.
I’m hopeful that soon enough the brake pads will bite, the tyres will find purchase and there will be a direction change on a slippery surface. And I’ll look this particular wallaby in the eyes and think “oh my, that was close”.