There is a really unsettling and then settling thing that I think happens to everyone at some point, or maybe actually it doesn’t happen to everyone, but after it happens to you, you realize it’s very likely it happens to everyone. I say both unsettling and settling because there’s the before, before the thing happens, and then it happens, whatever it is, and it’s so shocking to realize it can happen, and then once you know it can, everything is fine in a new way.
You know those things that happen to other people but definitely don’t or won’t happen to you, whether you consciously think it or just kind of assume in the back of your mind that it’s just not something that happens to you. Maybe because it’s just so unlikely, you’d never expect it, or maybe because you just don’t see yourself as the kind of person those things happen to.
Let me give you a list of the kind of stuff I mean, the stuff that happens to other people exclusively, before the day it happens to you. Other people get in major car accidents. Other people lose their jobs. Other people’s kids grow up to be drug addicts. Other people’s spouses cheat. Other people get divorced. Other people get cancer/some other devastating diagnosis.
So all that stuff happens to other people and you just feel it won’t happen to you, because really the odds are small/your kid is not that kid/your marriage is solid, etc. Then stuff like that happens to people you kind of know, like on the outskirts of your social circle, and it’s shocking. Then it happens to someone you know, and you realize it’s closer. Kind of like, whoa, that was close, because I know that person, but it’s not actually close because life is random, so it’s not like disaster looked at you standing next to someone and chose them instead.
There was this guy, when I first started working. He was from another store, covering another person’s last week of maternity leave. He did a lot of my training, since he was there and I was there and after a week he went back to his own store. I saw him again once or twice when he came to pick something up or drop something off. Anyway, he was at his place and I was at mine. A week or two ago, a lot of the shift managers where I work were travelling up to where he worked to cover shifts there. My boss was talking to me about being shorthanded over there, how they’d lost a shift manager. People are in and out at these jobs all the time, obviously, but she said someone had died. And I said, “You don’t mean Steven, do you?” (That’s not his name.) And she said yes, he’d died. He was coming home from somewhere and his car crossed into the other lane, and that was that. And that’s one of those outside of the social circle things, not someone I considered a friend or knew well, but I knew him, and he was close to my age and worked in my same job and was doing something I do. You know, driving a car. It’s weirdly surreal when one of those other people things happen to someone who is one of your people, no matter how tangentially so. I don’t in any way think his death was about me or that I’m personally affected other than “Geeze, that is fucking sad and I liked that guy,” and I haven’t in any way made it about me, other than thinking over my shock, because that’s what it was, shocking. I mean, people die ALL the TIME. But when it brushes by closely – and I realize this is not that CLOSE but you know what I mean – it’s a little unsettling.
Anyway, all of these things happen to other people. Other people fall asleep at the wheel and drift into traffic. But then, something on the list of things that happen to other people – maybe something you’ve given so little thought that it wouldn’t even occur to you to think about it being something that happened to anyone, but if you HAD, it would definitely be something that happened to other people – happens to you. And that is fucking unsettling. Even if it’s just a little thing, in the grand scheme of things. Because if this can happen, then suddenly all of the other people things can happen, too. There is literally no reason any of those things might not be you someday. Not that there was any real reason they wouldn’t be you before now, but suddenly it’s very clear that you have no secret special protection from life changing, bad, weird, or otherwise giant shit happening to you. (I do realize that coming to this understanding is very possibly a hallmark of emotional maturity I did not possess before a certain point in my life, and maybe normal people achieve that much earlier, and maybe you’re reading this like, “this is not news, you absolute walnut,” but I can only live inside this one head.)
For awhile, it’s really unsettling. A thing happened that wasn’t supposed to happen to you, and now you’re totally open to all the other things out there. Like this one thing wiggled in through your secret force field, the one that you had that was better than the unfortunate others, and tore it all the fuck up and now it’s all coming. You are now the other person. You are someone else’s other person, and shit happens to the other people. Now you will get all the shit, because you are in the other category now, where the shit comes to live.
That’s a long phase, or maybe a short one, I don’t know, because this is all hindsight now, where you’re just braced for all the terrible things that are coming for you now, now that you’re on this other side, and that’s unsettling, but eventually it’s not anymore. Eventually, it flips to the other side. Okay. Something that happens to other people has happened to me. Being the incredibly self-absorbed person that I am, that leads me to believe, finally, what was definitely true all along – that there are no other people. I have long considered myself to be the most average person I know, and if I’ve suddenly fallen into the other category, my self-centered mind gradually shifts to the understanding that of course I am still normal and average, and it’s not that these things happen to other people. They happen to normal and average people, of which I am one. And everyone else is one, too, except for the people on the ends who make averages like me possible.
And you know, that’s fine. Realizing you’re not secretly protected from these things should be unsettling, and it is, but then it’s really, really, fine. Understanding that the crap that only happens to other people could be lurking right around the corner for you, too, is kind of calming, in a weird way. This is life as it happens to all people and you’re going to keep living it. It’s easier to be gracious to people who are having a hard time, even if you can’t imagine yourself ever having the same kind of hard time, because of course you could have the same kind of hard time. It’s easier to swoop in and ask for what someone needs when they’re struggling, when before you would have been the type to hang back, not get involved, or not intrude, because it’s suddenly so much easier to imagine yourself in their shoes, or even kind of assume you will be in a similar set of shoes some day. It makes it easier to motivate yourself to work to keep what you have, stay healthy, talk to your kids, dedicate yourself with renewed energy to your marriage, not out of a “please let it only be them and not me” kind of motivation, but out of an understanding that no, not everyone gets to keep what they have, and there’s no criteria for choosing who does and who doesn’t get to hold on to it all.
I realize now this sounds like some kind of deep philosophical bullshit, or more likely one of those obnoxious “live every moment like it’s your last!” inspiration type crap heaps, and I hope you know me better than that. I’m not going to tell you how to live your life because I don’t really care, because I am totally self-absorbed and I accept that about myself, and you should, too. About me, I mean. I don’t care what you accept about your own self. It’s just one of those weird before/after realizations, where life is one way before and another way after. Like when I found out the plural of beef is beeves. You can’t come back from that shit, you know?