There's nothing like the feeling of a motorcycle sliding out from beneath you on a busy thoroughfare to focus the mind beautifully on the value of life. As your ass bounces from the cushioned seat toward the hard tarmac with the screech of unseen cars slamming on their brakes to your rear, you have one glorious moment in which to ask yourself: "What the hell am I doing?"
You see, that's the precise question that flashed through my mind as my accelerating rear wheel spun helplessly on an oil slick and 400lbs of Japanese machinery cushioned its fall with 170lbs of J.D. Tuccille.
My left elbow slammed against the asphalt before I had time to consider the answer.
But to a large extent, it's the question itself that matters the most: "What the hell am I doing?" Sooner or later most of us ask that same question. We ask it when we're doing something foolish, or brave, or unfamiliar, and we especially ask it when the situation goes sour—when we find ourselves airborne in late-morning traffic. And if we don't ask it of ourselves, somebody else is sure to do us the favor: "What the hell are you doing?"
The question means that we're taking risks, trying something new, or just pushing the boundaries of our usual behavior. It means that we're living, not just existing; to pass through life without facing that question would imply a tightly constrained existence lacking risk and adventure.
Not every situation that provokes the question is to our credit, of course. Sometimes we've made a mistake, sometimes we've embarrassed ourselves, and sometimes we've made a complete balls-up of a situation and we find ourselves staring up from the ground into the face of an Emergency Medical Technician. And whether we decide that our latest venture was a moment of glory or shame, it's a sure bet that somebody else views our decision with disdain; we all have our own lives, and our own very different standards by which to judge them.
But it's important to remember that while everybody has the right to ask the question of himself and others, only the person on the spot, the person living that moment has the right to decide whether the answer is justifiable—so long as that person also bears the costs and consequences of the answer, that is. And that is what gives life so much of its value. We have the right to try, to risk dignity and even death as we take the basic fact of existence and mold it into a life worthy of the name through a personal choice of experiences, occupations, and adventures.
So when others try to answer the question for us, to prevent us from taking the risk because they don't approve, they don't just do us a disservice—they rob us of the freedom that gives life its value. Through laws and taxes and regulations they try to consign us to an existence instead of a life; and this is not because the decisions they would make for us are necessarily bad decisions, but because they are not our own.
Some people—not enough—do understand this. After the accident, when the EMTs had assured themselves that my limbs were all in place and that I remembered my name, one turned to me and said: "And now for the important question: How's the bike?" (Answer: Not so good.) As an EMT he had certainly seen his share of nasty motorcycle accidents—incidents that ended with consequences more serious than my broken arm. But he understood, or at least respected, my decision to ride and to take risks that others find unacceptable.
We have the right to demand that attitude of everybody: disagree with us, call us fools, live your own lives differently, but don't try to tell us what decisions we may make in the conduct of our lives. Because the value of life is determined not by the mere drawing of one breath after another, but by the freedom to make our own decisions; to mold our lives as best we can into a shape that pleases us, and to enjoy the benefits or suffer the consequences.
What the hell was I doing? I was living my life. Now hand me my helmet or get out of the way.