YEARS AGO, AN EX of mine (well, he wasn’t an ex at the time) said I lived a charmed life. I detected some envy and some sadness in the statement, and while he didn’t begrudge me my charmed status—I’m pretty sure he was happy for me—it did point to the unfairness of it all.
It’s true. “Charmed” implies luck. What did I do to deserve the advantages of being born white, male, American (in the bluest of states, no less, though we didn’t call them that back then), and into a family that was not perfect but also not particularly fucked up? We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor. I wasn’t beaten, I never went hungry, I had shoes, and I always had a roof over my head. Charmed, in other words.
This came to mind because I lived a couple of decidedly non-charmed days in a row this week. The details are unremarkable: It started with one of those really disturbing, random incidents that nobody who rides a bike in the city is immune to; followed by a couple days of feeling generally irritated, like I’d temporarily lost my faith in humanity and that the world was an unsafe, menacing place; and then yesterday, a minor bike accident (and a few other irritating things) to top it off. I think the worst is over.
It’s not hard to see how these events connect. Once you get into a bad space, it becomes self-fulfilling to a large extent. Simple stuff, right? And yet, people live whole lives this way! There’s also randomness to everything that happens to us, karma or no karma, so sometimes we’re all just bound to have a lot of things go wrong around the same time. That’s life.
I worked in a bookstore in the early 1980s, and I remember a bestseller at the time called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I never read it, probably because I found the title kind of obnoxious, as if we aren’t all good people or as if some people’s problems matter more (actually, I doubt now that the author was saying that). Bad things happen to everybody, so this idea that it’s somehow out of the ordinary, or more tragic and unfair for some people—ourselves, basically—is kind of ridiculous.
It can be easy to forget I had some really wonderful things happen in the same past few days, so focused am I on trying to weave the happenings of my life into a compelling narrative drama—in this case, a narrative of things gone wrong. (I do this sometimes.) None of this is to deny that we can all have really lousy days that cause us pain and unhappiness; but it’s worth it, or at least interesting, to take a step back and see the ingredients that go into them.
I don’t deny my sadness or pain when it comes up, but I do try to keep it all in perspective. My crappy day yesterday, probably the worst yet this year (I’m not keeping track, but I can’t remember another one being worse recently), was probably way better than what some people experience every single day. So there’s that. Difficulties can be a good reminder of the First Noble Truth: how much suffering exists in the world—not a happy thought, but an important one to have.
We’ve probably all heard of “white people problems” or “first-world problems” by now, and I love it when these terms are used to expose and make fun of a (sometimes quite appallingly) self-centered, entitled lack of perspective. We choose to name things problems. Have you ever noticed that some people just have problems all the time? They seem sort of in love with their problems, like they wouldn’t know what to do without them.
That said, everyone has real problems, too, and they matter.
The fact that this week’s experience really stands out to me means that I really do live a charmed life. How many people can say they can’t remember their last really crappy day? So, that is good, and I know it.
I try to learn from things like this, and what I’ve learned this week is that I need to calm down. I have gotten away from my regular meditation practice these past few weeks, and I have no doubt that my agitation is directly related. Not surprisingly, I’ve also had a little more trouble sleeping these days.
(That reminds me, I’ve come up with a wonderful cure for earworms—I’ll post it separately, soon. I promise.)
I’ve said it before: If you don’t love what’s happening in your life, change it. You can’t always change circumstances, but you can change your reaction to them. In other words, change your mind. And on that note, I’ll flip the switch back to “charmed.”