Can Everything Change In An Instant?
Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Turning Points.
About Joshua Prager's TEDTalk
When Joshua Prager was 19, a devastating bus accident left him paralyzed on his left side. He returned to Israel twenty years later to find the driver who turned his world upside down. Prager tells his story and probes deep questions of identity, self-deception and destiny.
About Joshua Prager
Author and journalist Joshua Prager has created a career from telling stories of lives that changed in an instant. Over a decade-plus career at the Wall Street Journal, Prager began as a news assistant and worked his way up to senior writer.
While at the paper, Prager wrote about the world's only anonymous Pulitzer Prize winner, the unknown heir of the author of the children's book Goodnight Moon, and the backstory of how the 1951 New York Giants baseball team cheated their way to infamy, as told in his book The Echoing Green.
Today, Prager is focused on his own story: the 1990 bus accident that left him a hemiplegic at age 19. His new book Half-Life is about the accident and it explores identity and what it means to live a life changed in a single moment.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today: Turning Points - a life lived before, and another one after.
JOSHUA PRAGER: When I finished high school, I was always a good athlete, but I was small. It was depressing because my father was 6-foot-4 and here I was, 5-foot-7 and sort of very slim.
RAZ: That's journalist Joshua Prager. And around the year 1990, he started to change physically.
PRAGER: Well, I then went to Israel for a year, and it was amazing. All of a sudden, I started to grow and grow, like I was a superhero who finally wakes up and he has these superpowers. I grew about 6 inches. I said, I'm going to do as many push-ups as I can and then add one a night - 30, 31, 32 - and then I got to 50, and then I started doing sets of 50. Finally, the game that I loved, baseball - I could finally play it in a way I hadn't been able to just months before.
There I was, playing basketball, and I went up for a rebound, and my wrists clanged against the rim. And I said wow, I can jump. So it was all of these things sort of happening at once. The frustrating thing was, I had only just come to possess this new body when it was taken away from me. I only had it for like, two months.
RAZ: Just two months until the day he got onto a bus.
PRAGER: I was looking up at this hilltop - out my window - and I was talking about backpacking. We were going to go backpacking. Then all of a sudden, there was this incredible bang. In an instant, everything changed. My head, it jerked back over my seat; and the third and fourth vertebrae in my neck broke. I remember, as I flew through the air, my head was bobbing on my neck, and my shoes even flew off my feet. When I landed, I couldn't move.
RAZ: You knew it right away.
PRAGER: Well, about 30 seconds after the crash. And there was this incredible silence. And then I landed. And then I said OK, let's go. I realized, wow, you can't go. And that's when I felt vulnerable, and I have never felt invulnerable ever again. The day after the crash, my parents arrived. They flew from New York to Jerusalem. And I couldn't speak. I had to mouth my words
And I mouthed three questions to my mother: Am I going to be able to have children? Am I going to be able to walk? And am I going to be able to play baseball? (Laughing) And my mother, of course, answered yes, yes and yes; as only a mother would. But I think already, I understood then that things would be very, very different.
RAZ: And here's where Josh's story really begins. In rehab, he started to regain the use of his right side. But emotionally, he was coming to terms with what actually happened, and what would happen to him for the rest of his life.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PRAGER: Over the coming months, I learned to breathe on my own, and to sit and to stand and to walk. But my body was now divided vertically. I was a hemiplegic. And back home in New York, I used a wheelchair for four years - all through college. College ended, and I returned to Jerusalem for a year. There, I rose from my chair for good. I leaned on my cane and my ankle brace and a backpack, on trips in six continents. I pitched overhand in a weekly softball game that I started in Central Park.
And home in New York, I became a journalist and an author, typing hundreds of thousands of words with one finger. A friend pointed out to me that all of my big stories mirrored my own; each centering on a life that had changed in an instant, owing - if not to a crash - then to an inheritance, a swing of the bat, a click of the shutter, an arrest. Each of us had a before and an after.
RAZ: Do you often think about that day where your life was totally changed?
PRAGER: Well, in the years after the crash, I commemorated it every year on May 16th, and it was helpful. I would put on the cap that I wore in the crash - the baseball cap - and I thought back. I didn't wallow in it. I thought about it, and then I'd move right along. As the years went by, there was a different date that loomed as this incredibly important moment in my life, this hinge that would serve as the before and the after, much like the crash had; and that was the moment when I would have lived exactly as long after the crash as before it. And it wasn't some gimmick. For me, I realized it was incredibly important.
Even after I had come to feel comfortable with my disability, there was something that made me feel good about the fact that I had lived longer able-bodied then disabled. There was something comforting about that.
June 20th, 2009, at 5 in the morning, I would have lived 19 years and 35 days before, and 19 years and 35 days after. Somehow, suddenly, it hit me what I wanted to do. I wanted to have a catch with my father. And I asked him if he would wake up at 4:45 in the morning, and go back with me into the back yard. And he said, yes, and we did. Dawn was about to come, and we had this catch; and I couldn't quite make the plays and throw it back as I had, all those years before, but it was a very beautiful moment for me. And I was then ready to cross over to the other side.
You know, it's interesting, in science, the term "half-life" is the term used to describe the amount of time that something decays to half of its value. And what always divides by half will never fully disappear. And that, I realized, is true in my case as well. These things that were a part of me before the crash, are still present in me. They just - they're smaller parts of me than they once were, but they're still there.
RAZ: At a certain point, you decided that you wanted to learn everything about what happened that day. Why did you feel like you had to do that?
PRAGER: You know, it's interesting, I think there are different ways to deal with a bad thing. Some people say that the bad thing is good. It came from God and because God is good, the crash is good. And I realized that I was in the camp that said, this bad thing is bad. And so to deal with it, you've got to do something about it. Otherwise, life is too painful. And what I did was to know the crash.
I needed to know everything about it and - so I could exert some agency over this bad thing. And part of that was, I needed to learn about all of the people who were involved in it. I found the paramedic who saved my life, and the doctors; the passengers in the crash. And the last person was a man named Abed, who was the driver that caused the crash. So I set off to find him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PRAGER: Last year, I returned to Israel to write of the crash. And the book I then wrote, "Half-Life," was nearly complete when I recognized that I still wanted to meet Abed. And finally, I understood why - to hear this man say two words: I'm sorry.
People apologize for less. And so I got a cop to confirm that Abed still lived somewhere in his same town; and I was now driving to it with a potted yellow rose in the backseat when suddenly, flowers seemed a ridiculous offering. But what to get the man who broke your (bleep) neck?
PRAGER: I pulled into the town of Abu Gosh and bought a brick of Turkish delight - pistachios glued in rosewater; better. Back on Highway 1, I envisioned what awaited. Abed would hug me. Abed would spit at me. Abed would say, I'm sorry. I then began to wonder, as I had many times before, how my life would have been different had this man not injured me, had my genes been fed a different helping of experience.
Who was I? Was I who I had been before the crash, before this road divided my life like the spine of an open book? Was I what had been done to me? Were all of us the results of things done to us, done for us, the infidelity of a parent or spouse, money inherited? Were we, instead, our bodies, their inborn endowments and deficits? It seemed that we could be nothing more than genes and experience, but how to tease out the one from the other?
Had Abed not injured me, I would now in all likelihood be a doctor, a husband and a father. I would be less mindful of time and of death. And oh, I would not be disabled; would not suffer the thousand slings and arrows of my fortune, the frequent furl of five fingers, the chips in my teeth, come from biting at all the many things a solitary hand cannot open.
It was approaching 11 when I exited right toward Afula and passed a large quarry, and was soon in Kafr Qara. I felt a pang of nerves and as I approached the front door, Abed saw me; and I saw Abed, an average-looking man of average size. We shook hands and smiled, and I gave him my gift. And he told me I was a guest in his home, and we sat beside one another on a fabric couch. He'd just had surgery on his eyes, he said. He had problems with his side and his legs too and oh, he'd lost his teeth in the crash. Abed then rose and turned on the TV so that I wouldn't be alone when he left the room, and returned with Polaroids of the crash and his old driver's license. I was handsome, he said.
We looked down at his laminated mug. Abed had been less handsome than substantial with thick, black hair and a full face and a wide neck. It was this youth who on May 16, 1990, had broken two necks - including mine - and bruised one brain, and taken one life. Abed then showed me a picture of his mashed truck and said that the crash was the fault of a bus driver in the left lane who did not let him pass. I understand, I said, that the crash was not your fault; but does it make you sad that others suffered? Abed spoke three quick words: Yes, I suffered.
And it was then I understood that no matter how stark the reality, the human being fits it into a narrative that is palatable. He was not a particularly bad man or a particularly good man. He was a limited man who'd found it within himself to be kind to me. There was much I wished to say to Abed. I wished to tell him that were he to acknowledge my disability, it would be OK, for people are wrong to marvel at those, like me, who smile as we limp.
People don't know that they have lived through worse; that problems of the heart hit with a force greater than a runaway truck; that problems of the mind are greater still, more injurious than a hundred broken necks. I wished to tell him that what makes most of us who we are most of all - not our minds and not our bodies and not what happens to us, but how we respond to what happens to us. This, wrote the psychiatrist Victor Frankl, is the last of the human freedoms: to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.
But most of all, I wished to tell him what Herman Melville wrote; that truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. When one morning, years after the crash, I stepped onto stone and the underside of my left foot felt a flash of cold, nerves at last awake, it was exhilarating - a gust of snow. But I didn't say these things to Abed. I told him only that he had killed one man. I told him the name of that man. And then I said goodbye.
RAZ: It's kind of a weird question, but does a part of you feel lucky?
PRAGER: You know, it's interesting. I do believe that I'm lucky, in a sense; that I was born with whatever mental toolbox it is that enables me to respond positively to adversity. But I think that most of us have that; and I think that we don't realize we have that until we're in that situation, and we're called upon to use those tools. A lot of times, people who know me, they talk about what a lucky man I am. Things always work out for you, they say.
But maybe they're responding to the fact that I'm a happy person, and my life is a great life. I wouldn't change places with anyone - least of all Abed, who caused the crash. So I do think that so much of life is how we respond to it. And I'll tell you something, I always had that hilltop in my mind. And last year when I went back to Israel, I said, you know what? Why don't you go see where this damn place is. I went and I found the exact road which I'd been looking up at the time of the crash, and I looked back. And what was amazing was, I could see where I had been heading when I was approaching this round in the bend; and I could see where I was supposed to have continued.
I know that I didn't go get the pizza that I was off to get that day, for lunch. And I know that an arm and a leg were taken away from me. My left side doesn't work well. But I don't know what else would have happened, had I continued on. What hit me also - what was wild - when I was looking down at that bend, it didn't look so steep from where I was peeking down. When I was in the bus, it seemed like a really steep descent. And that sort of rough embankment was actually, now filled with almond trees. And it just hit me - God, we need distance, we need perspective, to look back at something honestly.
RAZ: Journalist Joshua Prager; he lives in New York. His memoir is called "Half-Life," and you can see his full talk at TED.com.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWO ROADS)
BUDDY STUART: (Singing) There were two roads I could travel. One led to wealth; the other, you...
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