The world is plagued by a strange disease of mindlessness. No story could hope to capture every aspect, or even all of the very most important aspects, of what our society currently faces, and this is not an attempt to do that.

I made small talk with the constable as she stood outside my office, waiting for my secretary to meet us with papers. She was a friendly woman, and the sun-kissed backs of her hands announced that she enjoyed our rediscovered freedom. I thought perhaps that she wasn’t naturally friendly, but that she was still taken by the euphoria of release. But it’s best to assume people are naturally friendly.

“It’s nice to be able to drive again,” the constable said, the pain in her eyes shaded by the visor of her uniform cap.

I’ve not been able to drive for quite a long time. In fact, driving is how the whole tribulation started for me, and I’m unlikely to ever again believe it’s nice to drive, or to be in any kind of moving vehicle if I can avoid it. Thinking of beginnings, I asked, thoughtlessly:

“Where were you when it began?”

I heard my voice ask the question as I came to regret it. There was no answer. The constable just stared at me, turned her head, and spat into the dust.

I should have known better. It’s a question no one asks. It’s a question that isn’t answered except during interviews with a dying generation, a question that’s not answered for quite some time even among companions in pain. I didn’t know the constable well enough to ask such a question. Strangers don’t trade in bitter nostalgia, at least not until it has faded and blurred so dimly into the passage of time that it becomes indistinguishable from self-remembrance. A good cry isn’t shared for the sake of the weeping.

All the same, I’ll tell you what I can—I’ll answer what I can. I don’t know where I was when it began, but I know where I was when it began for me. I was driving North on Green River Drive, a back road in a little town you’ve never heard of before. Inexplicably, a small car pulled out right into the path of my SUV, and we struck head on. I saw her eyes. The driver’s eyes. Her eyes were wide and aware. Then, there was an explosion, I tasted blood, my ears rang, and everything became still.

That day, the deputy spat, just like the constable. I sat by the roadside, still dumbfounded, attended by paramedics. The deputy paced the scene, studied the wreckage, turned his head, and spat on the pavement with what seemed to be disgust, or shame or grief over the waste of it.

She was dead. The other driver. She hadn’t gotten her belt on before the crash, although I never learned whether that explained her death. She had been turning from a residential road, maybe thirty seconds from her driveway. For her, it began and ended in the middle of her commute routine. Her right arm had shattered across her chest under the force of the accident, and her fingers had caught between her shoulder and seatbelt. That’s how we knew that she’d been adjusting, I assume for comfort, just before the accident.

I can still remember her shocked eyes—aware, but not in control. I can’t set foot in a vehicle or near a street without seeing that look. It terrifies me.

That day was not ordinary. At the hospital, an orderly stepped into the path of a stretcher. He had been standing upright, tight against the hallway wall, and then just casually stepped into the stretcher as it came by, sending doctors, nurses, patient, and instruments scattering over the floor. He—the orderly—kept walking through the scrum, eyes straight ahead, until he tripped, fell, and knocked himself unconscious against a doorframe.

When he came to, everyone wanted to talk to him. I didn’t get to ask him any questions, but of course his story circulated through the wards. He had been conscious the whole time. The problem wasn’t that he’d been unaware; it was that he’d just been along for the ride. He described the sensation as a sort of unusual intent, something part of himself that he did not understand simply would not control.

It was a day of mayhem. Perhaps the condition had been lurking for days or weeks before and had not been readily distinguished from a normal level of mishaps. But what we know is that on that day, all hell broke loose. Pedestrians walked randomly into traffic; vacationers swam endlessly to a death at sea; detainees rushed cops; shoppers rammed carts into displays; diners stood up randomly, knocking tables over and ruining everyone’s clothing. People died of the fright of it. Their hearts gave out. In the emergency ward, we were overwhelmed by the smell of shit and urine.

No one was surprised when we found out those who died were flushed with adrenaline and cortisol-the harbingers of fear. The victims of this strange condition were aware, brutally aware.

For my part, I was terrified by my doctors and nurses. They began to work closely in teams, the theory being that the other team members would restrain anyone who suddenly began blundering. I was still terrified.

The chaos was widespread. Airliners, trains, tankers, you name it, everything and everywhere in the world. Travel ground to a halt. People were reluctant to get into vehicles. They were reluctant to even get near vehicles. Things slowed down.

When I was released, it was hard for me to get home. I stood with my back pressed against the glass of the hospital entryway and could not step forward towards the sidewalk, because it ran alongside a street. Regular automobile traffic had been entirely forbidden, for reasons that should be obvious, but busses and supply trucks still ran, because people still needed to travel and eat. I couldn’t bear to walk near a street that harbored any moving vehicle piloted by a human being. I couldn’t bear to wait at a bus stop. I could blunder into the street, or a bus or truck could blunder into me. Either way, I would die horribly while pissing myself in terror. Involuntarily, I recalled the stench of the ward and fell to my knees, dry retching.

After an abortive hour or two falling in the roadside scrub, I waited far away from the road, my feet wedged in a drain, until a bus stopped, and I sprinted to it. A bus was reasonably safe. It traveled slowly, and the roads were flat and not near water. I reached home reeking of sweat and fear.

We now know that virtually all of us are afflicted by blundering. It can be fleeting—little more than a blank look or an abortive attempt to stand. It can be enduring—some folks have stood up and walked randomly for miles. It can be anything in between. The hallmarks are that the victim is aware, not in control, and tries to stand and walk, no matter what he’s been doing. In a vehicle or other machinery, this of course translates into stepping on the gas, sudden braking, steering that veers off, and so forth. The possibilities are endless—consider a large tractor, a steamroller, or a wrecking-ball. If the incident continues for more than a few seconds, the victim is likely to run into someone, or something—either with the victim’s body or whatever machine he’s operating at the time. That’s when you can hurt yourself or someone else.

The condition wasn’t all horror. People are resilient. An intractable problem brings out the puzzle master in all of us. You know how I wedged my feet in a drain—you know, to stop myself from blundering into the street if I was overcome? Well, teams of folks fitted the bus stop benches with roller coaster bars. A person with the blunders couldn’t do things like raise a roller coaster bar, so people could wait safely at the bus stops, which were now also protected by concrete, sand, and hydro buffers. People walked around in teams. Some of them roped themselves together; some used nothing; some preferred stun guns. You could stun a blunderer and save him from the worst of it. You could join a walk-share network. Through an outpouring of gifts, the homeless were conscripted as companions.

But there’s also a dark side to resilience. It’s called opportunism. I don’t know whether the two are competitors or companions. Maybe opportunism has its own light and dark sides—I don’t know. It’s semantics. Anyway, the thing is that you might think it’s easy enough to tell whether a person is blundering, but it can be difficult to tell whether another person is truthful about his own beliefs.

Let’s assume two men have met for a business lunch at the local steakhouse. Suddenly, one stands up from the table where he had been sawing away at a sirloin, knocking the table over and sending his companion to the floor. He advances over his fallen companion, still wielding the knife. The companion twists a little to free up his sidearm, draws, and shoots him dead.

Was the knife-wielding man blundering, or was he attacking? That’s something cameras or observers might help to determine, but it’s not everything. Did the fallen companion believe he had to defend himself? A blunderer can’t bend over to stick the knife in. Everyone knows this, so defending yourself from a blunderer is a crime, usually, if you know you’re doing it. Did he take advantage of harmless blundering to commit a murder? That’s a hard question. You might think you would learn something if you scrutinized the relationship between the men, their reason for meeting, the conversation between them before the incident, training, experience, and so forth. But let’s say the two are enemies? “Ah,” the prosecutor will say, “there’s motive. There’s murder!” But think about it. Who are you more likely to defend yourself against? A complete stranger, or a known enemy? Each fact cuts with two edges. Facts and beliefs don’t exist in isolation.

That actually happened. The jury believed it was self-defense, and I got them to believe it. Many other juries believed similar things in similar cases. It’s not a defense attorney’s job to uncover the truth. It’s his job to raise doubt. And with the blunders, there was a lot of doubt to raise. Fights and killings increased, but convictions did not. Familiarity became fearsome. And so, amid all the cooperation, there was isolation. It was necessary to share helping hands, but better to keep it to a minimum.

I remember returning home the night that jury rendered its verdict: “Not Guilty!” My walk-share group walked in silence. The few who were still in the group when we reached my door stood without word, without gesture, and with downcast eyes, waiting. They would not meet my eyes. It was in that moment that I knew that I was no longer safe with them. I had to abandon them, for my own safety.

Besides, I thought, if I’m gonna be alone, it won’t be around so damn many people.

An accountant, a banker, a grocery clerk, a machinist, take your pick of vocations, and a man could keep his silence and be safe, a cooperative automaton. But I was one of the attorneys who had acquitted the man half the county believed to be a cold-blooded murderer. No, in my work was no mere grain of speech, but raw action, and influence, and power. I could not be safe.

My boarder met me at the door. His things were packed. He nodded to me. “Thanks for having me—I think you did your duty honorably, but I’d rather not be seen here,” he explained. And then I stepped through the door, and I was in my house, and he was not. He left with his walk-share group.

Alone, I sat, tucked my feet through the floor-straps and ducked my head under my couch-strap, careful to place the restraint across my shoulders and hips, so I could not choke myself out, and laughed. How ironic! Everyone feared opportunism. I feared it. The reason it was fearsome was that I helped it to exist. And yet I could not do differently. It was my duty not to judge, but to raise doubt. The judging fell to others, and, in the end, the world skipped over the accused, and judged me. I would be both their victim and their defender! My duty! What a hell of a circle it was.

And no boarder to fetch me a beer. I risked it.

The silence was deafening. Not the absence of my boarder, who had rarely been talkative. It was the blundering silence. My boarder hadn’t been able to handle it. His shiner from some weeks ago had still been visible as he strode out my door. He’d joined a social club, which in his case was a group of like-minded people. I didn’t ask what kind of like-minded people. But I could see the stress on his face. What a shitty life it must be to live in fear of your own like-minded people. It was a hard thing to abandon one’s own thoughts except to calculate the groupmind. And then one day his face had a shiner, and he stopped going out evenings. That was that, and he was out.

I got cases like that. Someone gets too comfortable, expresses an opinion that angers someone in the social group, gets tased or hit or kicked a bit more than necessary during a blunder. I get to defend the person accused of the attack. Not everyone’s an accused murderer. It’s mostly simple battery. If it were only simple battery, I guess I would still have had my walk-share group and a social life. Those things ended in plea bargains, not in media circuses.

In the end, the impunity of doubt overwhelmed the compulsion to group. A person either gravitated towards people with a history of almost passive tolerance (and was only permitted to do so if he fit the bill himself), or he was a person who reveled in abuse and was fit to take it, or he found himself a group that could occupy itself with many hatreds unfocused on him. The alternative was to be consigned to isolation or suicide, neither of which were all that uncommon.

Well, that or an anonymous chat. I laughed as I logged in to one. I’d thought these things were useless until the blunders befell us. Through this server, committed to anonymity, one could interact without the fear of reprisal. If it weren’t important to you to have an identity or the touch or presence of another human being, I supposed that it could keep you going, at least for a while.

Your handles changed randomly, and there was no way to categorize you, no way to judge you, or pursue you for bullying, whether offline or online. It made many people more aggressive, verbally, than they’d ever been before the blunders, but for almost everyone, it was the only route for self-expression.

In other words, you could express your “self,” so long as you didn’t have one. It was a terrible trade before the blunders, and even worse now, an outpouring of hatred and stress. You could hunt hard for a haven of kindness, but that could be overrun in a moment. At all times you feared what was coming. That was the deal. It was a terrible trade, but it was the only one in town, up until the day you put a gun in your mouth, which at the time I’d felt was coming soon.

I felt amazed by the whole ordeal. Who would think that the Blundering would have such an effect? As I had lay recovering in the hospital ward, watching the news of it, I had thought first that the world was coming to an end, and then that the world would have a hard time of things, and then that the Blundering was a mere technology and logistics puzzle. That it was about nothing more than moving people and things around to where they needed to be and imposing some buffers for finely tuned skills. That, as an enduring problem, it was for musicians, artists, sculptors, and surgeons.

Those problems were all solved quickly and practically. But the way in which life changed, well, no-one saw that coming.

I avoided leaving my house except for work. I ordered my necessities online whenever I could. But in an emergency, I had to go to the grocery store. One night, having picked up some emergency items, I was pushing my basket towards the register when I was blindsided by another cart. I was startled, but unharmed. I turned to see a woman still blundering forward, so I called for help and restrained her by holding onto her arms gently, assuring that she didn’t move forward or fall. No one came to help. When her episode had passed, she asked if I was unharmed.

“Yes,” I said, “and you?”

“Oh, simply embarrassed, that’s all. Thanks for the help.”

“No problem.” I smiled, nodded, and went about my business.

It happened quickly, without time for reflection. She caught up with me as I was leaving the store.

“Do you recognize me?” she asked.

I nodded. “Yes, I recognize you.” She was one of my frequent picketers. I had them at my office and at the courthouse. I cleared my throat. “That is, I recognize you, but I don’t know your name.”

“Why did you help me?”

I declined to hazard an answer just yet. Instead: “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question—I don’t mean to be frustrating, but you’ll have to clarify.”

“Well,” she said, with a stern look, “in that case, since I protest you so often, why did you help me?”

I decided to go with the truth. “In all honesty, I didn’t see your face until after I intervened. I had no idea who I was helping until I was already doing it.”

“Oh.” She stood there, watching me. “If you knew, would you have begun to help?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged and involuntarily twisted my lips into a half-frown. “I’d like to think I would.”

I had turned to leave when she called after me. “Why don’t you join us tonight?”

I turned back towards her. “Join who?”

“Who do you think?” she said, genuinely incredulous. “Your picketers.”

It sounded more survivable than another night of isolation, so I decided to go.

I wish I could tell you that we all got along grandly despite our differences, but there’s no such lesson here. I think that half of them hated me, and I didn’t much care for them either. We might not have had the passion or nature for murder, or maybe our little part of the world was all killed out. I took a few beatings and certainly enjoyed cattle prodding one or two of them more than I expected to.

When the plague passed, we were still alive, which was probably due just as much to desperation, exhaustion, and dumb luck as it was to the admirability of human nature. Humans want to survive. Look around you. That’s it. Instinct. There’s nothing commendable about it. Just the pure animal drive to live another day.

I still talk with a few people from that group. Some of us are friends, some aren’t. Those who are my friends, we found something outside survival, and we found something outside our contests. We’re not nostalgic about how we survived the Blunders.

Submitted: September 25, 2022

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