How Could That Happen to Me?

[Note: see my latest article on this site, Friends, Motives and Profits—Avoid Fear-based Selling]

There is being trusted, and there is trusting. To trust requires acceptance.

When my children were young, they would say, “How come Marshall got the big piece?” or, “why does Ashley always get to be first?” Followed by the conclusive, “It’s not fair.”

My feeble answers were part rationalization (“because she’s older…”), part problem-solving (“next time you’ll get…”), part fatalism (“hey, life’s not about fairness”). They prospered despite my advice.

Still, we all know that feeling. Some fine people waste their lives, one finite and irreplaceable day at a time, by an inability to get over it. “It” might be a relationship that ended years ago. A parent who didn’t give us what we wanted. A friend who slighted us. A boss who didn’t appreciate us. An inability to come to grips with our own levels of mediocrity.

How could this have happened to me?

I can’t point fingers—they point back to me times four. I can resent for hours a driver who cut me off. And I know better.

I know that resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Other people don’t annoy me, I am annoyed. I and I alone own my feelings; and I can’t own anyone else’s. And still I ask, "why me?"

But my problems are trivial. Does the advice work on real pain?

NYTimes, April 10:

Minneapolis – For 14 years, Isaac Owusu’s faraway boys have tugged at his heart. They sent report cards from his hometown in Ghana and painstaking letters in fledgling English while he scrimped and saved to bring them here one day.
So when he became an American citizen and officials suggested taking a DNA test to prove his relationship to his four sons, he embraced the notion…

But the DNA showed that only one of the four boys — the oldest — was his biological child. For Isaac, a widower, the revelation has forced him to rethink nearly everything he had taken for granted about his life and his family.

It has left him struggling to accept that…his deceased wife had long been unfaithful…the children he loves are not his own…his long efforts to reunite his family in this country may have been in vain. The State Department let his oldest son, now 23, come but said the others — a 19-year-old and 17-year-old twins — could not come because they are not biologically related to him.

“I say to myself, ‘Why this one happen to me?’ ” he asked, his eyes wet with tears. “Oh, mighty God, why this one happen to me?”

Kinda puts my puny problems in their place.

Believing events to be divinely driven, Owusu suffers for his lack of understanding. Religion has two answers for him:

a. The soft version—faith: there are no coincidences, all is God’s purpose —your misery is in direct proportion to your lack of faith;

b. The hard version: God’s will is what it is, and the fact that you don’t know what it is means diddly. (Roughly what God told Job, on what I suspect was a particularly honest day).

“How could that happen to me?” is a profoundly useless question. It has no answer, beyond a trite rehearsal of the steps that got you here. It is a form of resentment; resentment of the universe, which doesn’t care. To resent is to be disaffected from reality, from what just is. And resentment’s handmaiden, self-pity, is a turnoff to others.

The generic answer is, get over it. Accept. Embrace what is. That doesn’t mean passivity in the face of injustice, nor does it mean others aren’t wrong—it just means get on the right side of reality.

That’s not hard to say to a kid. Not even to a friend. Harder, of course, to ourselves. Hugely harder for Mr. Owusu. But I think it’s true for all.

Even for another hard case, a Rutgers woman basketball player who feels, right now, irretrievably harmed by another’s despicable remarks. Ms. Rutgers too will ultimately find relief only within. Ditto the 9/11 survivors, and the spouses of those lost in Iraq.

But this isn’t all hard-ass. Do yourself a favor. Read an excerpt from Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation and Revenge, by Ellis Cose. There are lessons for all of us in these stories of lives transformed by acceptance and forgiveness in the face of unspeakable pain.

To trust requires a small measure of this acceptance. If I trust you, you might betray me. But if I try to totally control you, I cut myself off from the reality of you. I come to live in resentment. And I usually fail in controlling others anyway.

Acceptance doesn’t guarantee trust: but it’s a helluva start.