Suddenness, the unexpected, the way life can change on a dime, has always been on my mind. You open the door on a sunny day and a runaway bus climbs your front steps and zap, you’re gone. You are walking in the park, and an asteroid lands on your foot. A sinkhole swallows your brother while he sleeps. Yes, I try to make it funny with unlikely examples, but, as we all know, the real thing is not funny at all.
We hear the real thing on BREAKING NEWS reports and, for the most part, manage to put it in the backs of our minds. Have you ever noticed how common it is, whenever survivors or relatives of victims of some awful event are interviewed, to hear: “I’ve seen things like this on television, but I never thought something like this could happen to me!” Because, no matter how many times we see sudden disasters, we somehow still believe that we are immune, and so we are perpetually surprised. That is, until lately. Because lately, we are having such a busy tragedy season in the world, that it is getting harder to preserve our innocence. Life is an endless procession of school shootings, church bombings, factory explosions, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, floods and wildfires. And countless “smaller” disasters we hear on the six o’clock news reports every day. I wake up almost every morning to the news that there has been another hit and run in Brooklyn, another stabbing on the train.
And all of those events began on a routine day with a routine act for someone: lacing up sneakers and going for a run, packing a sandwich and juicebox and sending first graders off to school, deciding, as in so many previous hurricanes, to ride out the storm; a transit worker goes to work like he does every day, a boy and his friend take a boat out on a slightly choppy sea, a girl stands just a bit too close to the edge of the train platform. And then: everything changes like that.
It is hard to think about, hard to hear. Sometimes we want to turn off the news, forget it, ignore it, especially when the news reports go on and on, as if the repetition can convince us to believe the unbelievable, that the terrible event, whatever it is, has really happened to the victims, and by implication, to us. Sometimes we think by avoiding hearing about it, we protect ourselves. Watch only happy news? Read only happy articles? (All right, some people will have stopped reading this one a paragraph ago.) But in truth, the unexpected happens to all of us, at one time or another. Avoidance of this truth won’t help. Avoidance of life, won’t either, though it is tempting to think no harm will come, if, like the famous French novelist, we stayed in our padded bedrooms, safely tucked into bed. But, of course, we know better.
I know better. And so I am drawn back to the central question I ask myself all the time: How do I learn to expect the unexpected and still get on with life?
Honestly, I don’t have an answer. It’s trial and error with me. I don’t turn off the tv, but I limit the loop — three repetitions and I’m out. And I am mindful not to be self-indulgent. Though I may shed a tear for the injured and unlucky, I try not to wallow in the feeling, but instead remind myself that this time it isn’t me and mine going through it, and in gratitude do what I can – send a check, send a blanket, send a thought.
A friend who is old enough to be wise says the way to stay ready is to keep all “the essentials” done. Live every day as if you’re not going to get another one. Forgive everyone everything. Don’t go to bed angry. Have another piece of cake. This sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, but I can’t think of anything better at the moment.
Except maybe to keep in mind this: if suddenly unexpected, world-changingly horrible things can happen, then suddenly, unexpected world-changingly wonderful things can happen, too. Lottery ticket, anyone?