I never learn more about the world and myself than in the times when life has beaten me down and I don’t think I can go on.
I don’t think this is particular to me. It is a human trait, a skill even. When we feel the world has us pressed beneath its gigantic planetary thumb, we gain a perspective on the world that we would not have otherwise had. There, in the gutter, we grow, we share our experiences with others, and we realize that these things are not happening “to us” — they are merely happening, and they happen to countless others, millions upon millions of people who have it better or have it worse, but who, like us, have it happening “to them.” In the nebulous goings-on of Earth, the natural disasters, the small injustices, and the accidents: the potential for emotional and intellectual growth.
I call this the case for misfortune. It was first made to me in 2004.
Nearly six years ago, my brother was killed in a collision. He was 13.
Needless to say, I was devastated (as was my family, and his friends), and to this day no words can truly build out of the mass of sensations, tears, and lost moments any cohesive conceptualization or retelling of the days, weeks, and months that followed his death. But out of this devastation grew an overpowering sense that, in spite of this tragedy, my life would continue (whether or not I wanted it to, as time stops for no person).
And from that acknowledgment came a better, more fulfilling life. Now, I don’t mean to say that I “made the best of it” or that it was “all right in the end”; these trite axioms fail — when something like that happens, when your brother dies, there is nothing there to make the best of, only a gaping absence, and it cannot and will not ever be all right — but I understood that there was nothing that could be done about it, the moment having already passed into certain finitude. The sun had already set on my sibling’s very short existence, but the sun would continue to rise and fall for myself and countless others.
In the months following the accident, the case for misfortune was made. It was unknown to me then, but I see it now very clearly: out of this tremendous, senseless and unnecessary tragedy, a major psychological change was occurring within me. Over time, the trivial concerns melted away, and any lingering juvenile proclivities were expelled as if in breath. I took more of an interest in my studies, and pursued my passions with increased vigor.
The process was not instantaneous, as it was with the Buddha after his ‘Four Sights’ millennia ago, but that sort of enlightenment is hard-won and rare. Never did I say, in seeing truly for the first time that death awaited us all and that there was no point in either resisting, denying, nor resenting it, “Well, screw this noise. I’m going to become a hermit and dedicate my life to meditation.” But there was a sea change, no less phenomenal and no less absolute.
As has been the case throughout my life, my agonal relationship with the world continued, but up to this day I would say my life has been more filled with happiness and joy than it has with sadness, and in spite of the fact that I, like nearly all of us, have had something incredibly traumatic occur in my life, more often than not, when I walk outside to face the day my first thought is one of overwhelming thankfulness.
But the crux of my point is not this ‘if-then’ statement: If you experience tragedy, then your life will become more fulfilled. If I said this, I would be lying. Not only that, it would serve as a seeming endorsement of tragedy.
Nothing could convince me to consent to experience that first year after the accident again, and never would I wish that experience on anyone else, no matter what.
However, somewhere hiding in that tragic cyst was sharp insight and wisdom that could be shaped into serving some kind of purpose.
I threw myself into philosophy and poetry, and in the process the narrow-minded cynicism of my early youth was excised (albeit falteringly, and perhaps remains extant still in some nook of my psyche). The case for misfortune lies in the potential misfortune, like all major emotional and mental shocks, presents us: life is fucking short, and we’d better do something beautiful before our heart stops.
Down in the gutter of misfortune, I raised my hands and was lifted up. Not by Jesus, nor the petty and childish escapism that drugs and drink has provided all too many of my contemporaries, but by the firm and unyielding acknowledgment (buffered and aided by art and literature, and the love of my family and friends) that this is a wondrous blue ball we live on, and that time is too precious and too rigid in its unceasing continuation to spend too much of it wallowing in despair or apathy, or thinking about how things might be different if we had somehow known.
I’m reminded of the quote from Rumi, “Tending Two Shops”:
Don’t run around this world
looking for a hole to hide in,
There are wild beasts in every cave!
You own two shops,
and you run back and forth.
Try to close the one that’s a fearful trap
getting always smaller, checkmate,
this way, checkmate that.
Keep open the shop
where you’re not selling fishhooks anymore.
You are the free swimming fish.
Think that you’re gliding out from the face of a cliff like an eagle.
Think you’re walking like a tiger walks by himself in the forest.
You are most handsome when you’re after food.
Spend less time with nightingales and peacocks
One is just a voice, the other just a color.
This misfortune has taught me, as when I had been low and weak, I could see into the darkness and knew then that so many of the things I had thought were important were anything but. And so many things that may have caused me to raise my voice in complaint were silenced by the knowledge that somewhere in California in another time my brother had been laid on the county medical examiner’s table at age 13.
What could be worse than that? What could I possibly experience in my life that would be worse than never drawing breath again?
The year before my brother’s death, I had experienced what was up to then the worst thing to have ever happened to me: I had been broken up with by my high school sweetheart. In the parlance of the times, I would have insisted (mistakenly) that the guy she ended up with a few months after our breakup had ‘stolen’ her from me, but in the intervening years he has become a close friend.
His father died when he was very young. We don’t talk much specifically about our individual, and yet shared, tragic experiences, but I know that it is because of my own experience that I let go the petty rivalry I had cultured with him, and because of both of our experiences that we have a sort of silent, emotional fraternity: both our shit got fucked up at one time, and those events have served as a sort of ‘snap-to’ from which we are able to orient ourselves emotionally.
Speaking for myself, at least, the minor snafus, obstructions, and annoyances that once ate at me hardly concern me now. And a sense of sympathy fills me when I hear about the loss that others have experienced, so strong are the memories of my own. In particular, about a month ago I was reading an article in Esquire that had been sent to me by a friend about legendary film critic Roger Ebert’s life since he had his jaw removed during surgery as part of his fight against thyroid cancer. In it, Ebert spoke briefly (with the aid of a computer program) about his former partner, Gene Siskel:
“I’ve never said this before,” the voice says, “but we were born to be Siskel and Ebert.” He thinks for a moment before he begins typing again. There’s a long pause before he hits the button. “I just miss the guy so much,” the voice says. Ebert presses the button again. “I just miss the guy so much.”
I feel the same way about my brother, and there again, in our own individualized tragedies, a bridge is built between two human beings. A bridge built by loss.
In the light of the misfortune that befell myself and my family nearly six years ago now, the ends in no sense outweigh their means, and the list of things I would give up to see my brother again is a long if not endless one. At the same time, though, there are an infinite number of wonderful moments I have experienced since that time, tinged with heartache, but all the more thrilling and beautiful because of and as a direct result of that vacuum.
But the overarching point is this: when life gives you lemons, eat them. Fight the tartness and the strain, give the world a toothy citrus grin, and be thankful you’re alive.
As Ebert said in the article, and as I felt myself after the veil of despair had lifted from my eyes:
“There is no need to pity me. Look how happy I am.”