We all have days in a typical year where we are taken back, on an annual basis, to a deeply significant event that fundamentally altered our wholly insignificant lives. Yes, I just put the descriptor “significant” with “event” and “insignificant” with “lives.” Doesn’t seem quite right, seeing as though we train ourselves to accept the fact that bad days will happen but that the overarching objective is to get to the end of one’s existence with a sense of happiness from a life well lived. And yet, we succumb emotionally, year after year, to those annual reminders of tragic happenings–usually one-off anomalies–that shook the foundation of that in-progress life well lived.
Not to diminish the deaths of significant people in our lives, but we all know that these passings will happen. Even if your parent lives to see his 100th birthday, there will be, as long as you live, a memory of the day that he died. And year after year, you’ll think about this day.
This day has been elevated to “significant” in your otherwise relatively insignificant life.
I’ve done this, too. I think about my father, who died at 52, on October 13th every year. Eighteen October 13ths have come and gone with my waking hours of that day thinking about him. That day. Not his birthday: perhaps because I wasn’t there for that in 1945. Not my birthday: perhaps because I have no memory of that day either. I was present with him on his last day in 1998. I watched.
That day has been elevated to “significant” in my otherwise relatively insignificant life.
What about events that are not, literally, life and death. What about the anniversary of the day someone gets divorced, or found out their spouse was unfaithful? What about the day that someone learns that their child is diseased, or mentally ill, or addicted to drugs? What about the day someone is arraigned, or blackmailed, or denied access to opportunity?
We carry all of these tragic events around in near secrecy. There are only a few among among us who share the embarrassing, shameful, harshly judged events of our lives. Only the rare individual shows her scars.
Even in matters of life and death, there is a shroud of secrecy. While my conjecture could be off, when I see obituaries of people in their 40s where no explanation is given as to the nature of their deaths, I conclude either drug overdose or suicide. The loved ones left behind don’t care to publicize the real details; I can understand why. We’re not the most compassionate people with respect to addictions and mental illness. We like to think we are, but the perennial lack of details in middle-aged people’s obits speaks volumes to the contrary.
So when it comes to that day you learned about your spouse’s gambling addiction and the gutting of your retirement accounts, you might not say, “Today’s a tough day. Let me tell you what happened six years ago.” And when your barista asks, “How’s it going?” You probably won’t say, “Not so good, last year today my son was hospitalized because he had a psychotic break.”
But what are these “significant” events if not those happenings that shape our perceptions and force reflection? And why are we so frightened by the humanness of private tragedies? We all have them, some more unapologetically than others. Were we to endeavor to be openhearted to the reality that, like death, there is inevitability in those private tragedies and that this reality ought not bring self-imposed shame or judgment but rather a mutuality of experience best appreciated through a practice of compassion.