Warning: The first bit of this piece contains a hearty gripe. Stick with me: except for occasional outbursts, the kvetching doesn’t last past the first couple of paragraphs, and there really is a point.
As people who are close to me know (and as people who follow the blog closely may have guessed), the last month or two has been among the lousiest times of my life. I’ve had worse months — months of death, of divorce, of serious family illness. But in terms of the sheer stupid dogpiling of badness upon badness, I’m hard-pressed to think of another that’s sucked more. It’s not just been the pneumonia and my cat dying; I’ve been dealing with other health problems (mostly behind me now, but it wasn’t fun); a trip to the emergency room for Ingrid (she’s totally fine now, but it was a scary few hours); a small but painful second- degree burn; missing the queer contra dance camp because I was sick; and my hard drive crashing. (Yes, I’ve been doing backups; no, I haven’t been doing them often enough, and I lost some work that I really did not want to lose.)
It’s getting to the point where it’s almost comical, except that I lost my sense of humor about a week and a half ago. Along with my patience. But of course, you can lose your patience all you want to with bad things in your life, and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference — you still have to endure them.
I don’t bring all this up to cadge sympathy, or to dump on you. I bring it up because of this: This has been the kind of month (two-month? fortmonth? bimonth?) that would make believers in God wonder what they were being punished for. It’s the kind of bimonth that, back in my woo days when I believed that everything happened for a reason, would have made me rack my brains trying to figure out what the fuck it was that the universe was trying to teach me. (Amazing, isn’t it: the arrogance of thinking that the universe arranges itself around you in order to personally teach you a lesson.)
But I don’t think that. Any of it. And I’m so glad that I don’t think any of it, I can’t even tell you.
I know that religion is repeatedly defended as a source of comfort in difficult times. But this has been one of the more difficult times in my life… and I’ve been finding that my atheistic, skeptical, rational view of my difficulties is more comforting than any religious belief I’ve ever held, or could ever imagine holding.
So here is my atheist, skeptical, rational look at why runs of bad luck happen.
1. Just plain luck. Anyone who studies statistics will tell you that, in any random sequence that’s long enough, mini-sequences will show up that look like patterns. Pseudopatterns, they’re called. You roll a pair of dice for long enough, chances are that at some point you’re going to get snake-eyes ten times in a row. And that’s some of what this run of bad luck is about. A good example is my cat dying and my hard drive crashing. Nothing to do with each other, as far as I can tell. They just happened to happen in roughly the same time frame. When a lot of it happens in a row, it can feel like a pattern, with intention behind it… but that doesn’t mean it is.
2. Bad things can cause other bad things to happen. If you’re tired, stressed, distracted, sleep- deprived, etc. from a bad thing happening, you’re more likely to make serious mistakes, get into accidents, and/or get sick. Ingrid and I are convinced that this is why she had her trip to the emergency room: it happened in the middle of Catfish’s final illness, and Ingrid was upset and distracted and not looking where she was going. And I think it’s very likely that the dogpile of stress was a big factor in my getting pneumonia. (At the doctor’s visit when the pneumonia was diagnosed, my blood pressure, normally in the very healthy vicinity of 120/70, was 144/87.)
3. Bad things make you less able to cope with other bad things… thus making them feel worse than they otherwise would. I don’t think pneumonia is ever a picnic… but I think I’d be handling it with a lot more patience and good humor if it hadn’t come at the tail end (what I hope is the tail end, what bloody well better be the tail end) of this ridiculous run of shitty luck.
4. Big bad things make you more conscious of, and more sensitive to, little bad things. This, I think, is a big one. Normally, I pride myself on my ability to take the ordinary bumps of life in my stride, even to have a sense of humor about them, to make them part of the overall optimistic pattern of my life. But in the last month, every little inconvenience and annoyance has been magnified by stress. Ingrid getting a cold, a stain on our nice bedspread, the store being out of the kind of tea that I like… all of it gets magnified into One More Fucking Thing I Have To Deal With This Month. All of it seems like part of the pattern. The non-existent pseudopattern.
Or, to sum it all up in a couple of words: Shit Happens.
So where’s the comfort in all this?
Here is the comfort:
I know what’s happening.
I understand what’s happening.
So I’m not afraid of it.
And I don’t have to feel guilty about it.
I don’t have to add guilt to the dogpile. I don’t have to add the shameful and frightened feeling that the dogpile is a punishment for some unknown sin. I don’t have to add sleepless nights trying to figure out what I’ve done wrong, what I’ve done to deserve this, what lesson is being taught me that I’m too dense to learn. I don’t have to feel like it’s my fault. (Okay, not backing up my data often enough was my fault… but other than that.) I don’t have to take it personally.
Now, I understand that “not taking it personally” is itself hard for many people. If shit happens simply because shit happens, and not to teach you a lesson, then the shit can seem both meaningless and out of control. Believing that runs of bad luck are punishment for some sin is a way to give your suffering meaning… and it’s a way to convince yourself that you have it in your power to prevent it from happening again.
But given a choice between thinking that the meaning of my suffering is “Shit happens,” and that the meaning of my suffering is “You’re a bad person,” I’ll take “Shit happens” any day. And given a choice between spending my life in a desperate, futile attempt to figure out which set of rituals and sacrifices I need to make to appease my god and prevent the shit from happening again — and instead having some sort of reasonable expectations and wisdom about what in my life I can and cannot change — I’ll take the latter in a heartbeat.