Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a group of close friends. We’ve known each another for years and we’re of an age that indicates we’ve lived enough time on this earth to have been pummeled and battered by life now and then.
And yeah, we have been pummeled and battered, off and on. Among the four of us, we’ve lost a spouse to death or divorce, suffered the death of a child, been overwhelmed by debt, contracted a potentially fatal disease, gotten sued, feared for the future of one of our children, been alienated from family members. And so on. Hey, if you live long enough, the minuses add up.
What I found most interesting — aside from the amount of sheer heartbreak at a single, unremarkable table in a busy restaurant — was the attitude we all shared: We didn’t understand people who said Why me? when disaster struck. Individually, when we’d gotten slammed by life, our attitude had been Why not me? Life is tough, it sucks sometimes. Why should I be exempt?
I’d always blamed my own morose, pessimistic, hell,-maybe-I-deserve-it attitude on my parents. (That’s safe. When you’ve got an unattractive problem, blame Mom and Dad. This works just fine till you have kids yourself and you get a little wobbly and defensive on that particular point.)
Growing up, nobody ever told me to shoot for the stars. I was supposed to know my place in the world and not expect much of anything. “What makes you think you’re so good?” my mother would ask me time after time, when I wanted something, presumed too much, dreamed too big. It was a hard, mainline Protestant view of a world that was harsh and unforgiving. It was also part of growing up female in the 1950s and 1960s. Or, as my father always said, “Don’t get your hopes up.”
I hated it all, of course, and blamed my parents for my low expectations about life and my paltry store of self-worth. But time passes and you look back and see different aspects of something you thought you knew and understood and rejected completely. My parents were teaching me what they knew and what had made them feel safe.
Then, as these things sometimes work out, I met and married someone who thinks life is a gas and you should have a great time of it and why not aim for whatever you want. Why the hell not? Over the years, we’ve balanced each other in so many ways. Didn’t I tell you everything would work out? he’ll chortle when my worst fears aren’t realized. Didn’t I predict the stock market would tank? I’ll gloat in return.
At this age, though, I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s not a bad thing to have been taught and to believe at your core that life can be tough and implacable and that you’re not a special case. It makes you appreciate the good that can happen and girds you, just a little, when catastrophe hits. Why not me? you ask yourself. It doesn’t make you happy, but it just might make you a little less miserable.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)