At some point when we undergo major personal or professional changes, we find ourselves reflecting on the eternal verities, on what is most important in life, on the time we might have left. The disruption of our comfortable routines by marriage, divorce, a new baby, family tragedy, or professional change can trigger these thoughts; this time for me it is a new job.
When I recollect challenging circumstances and the lessons learned, one of the more interesting insights is how often I have realized, when faced with an annoying, anger-provoking, or distressing experience, that life is too short to fret over them.
By that I mean that if one takes a calm, long view and considers the values one espouses, many problems don't register highly on the Value Scale. I would like to say that my insights are permanent. However, I find that I often must learn them again under slightly different circumstances. The following are a few “life is too short” realizations I have had over the years, sometimes with the help of a family member or friend.
Some years ago I bought a new car. Within days I came out to the parking lot to find someone had dinged the side of the car, causing what seemed like a pizza-sized dent, which in reality was the size of a penny. I was livid and emitted a stream of very unimaginative curses. I got into the car still furious and drove home in a foul mood. When I got out of the car I could barely force myself to look at the scar on my new car, but I did. It was still there.
I went into the house ready to relate my woes when my wife said, “Hi honey,” and gave me a kiss, and one of my daughters said, “Hi daddy,” and gave me a hug. My anger and the story melted away into insignificance.
When they were little, one of my daughters would spill milk at the table fairly often. We repeatedly moved the glass and told her to be careful, but she inevitably found a way to tip it over, soaking the table. I blew my top and spewed something about having told her again and again. One day she did it again and I looked up to see three little girls and my wife looking at me anxiously in expectation of yet another outburst. I paused, for a change, and realized what an ass I had been. All I could think of to say was, “That's OK honey, I did that a few times myself.” All at the table were relieved, including me, and we went about cleaning up and continuing our usual lively meal.
Life is too short to lose one's temper over trivialities.
My sister and her husband were set to move into a new house this year close to her daughter and grandchildren. Before they moved in, the garage caught fire and spread to the house, causing major damage to the structure and to furniture and other belongings that she had already moved in. The house required new wiring, dry wall, appliances, etc.
A few days after the fire when things had settled down and the full extent of the damage was known, she said to me, “You know, it's an awful experience and a financial burden despite the insurance, but no one was hurt…and it's all just stuff. We will be fine.” “It's all just stuff” is something our father would have said.
The loss of material things is not even close to the worst things that can happen.
Consider the Source
My maternal grandmother lived nearby when I was growing up. She was a tough old sourpuss who never had a nice thing to say about anyone; one of her cousins in Sicily said she was “weaned on a pickle.” She was not happy that my mother, her daughter, married my father, a taxi driver who did not own property (the ultimate sign of success for many immigrant families). She often gave my mother a hard time, too.
In my teens we moved into a two-flat apartment building owned by my grandmother and the opportunity for criticism was more frequent. My mother would become angry and tell my father about some unkind thing my grandmother had said about her or my father or us kids. His response was something like this: “Why are you upset? You should consider the source. She is an angry and unhappy person. You should feel sorry for her.”
My dad was and is my role model for the “life is too short” response to many things.
Each of these is an example of refusing to become perpetually angry or bitter over relatively minor issues. Anger and bitterness often do more damage to oneself than any satisfaction attained by “expressing one's feelings.”
But what about “justified” anger and bitterness? What about a major injustice or evil such as the murder of a family member or the death of a child hit by a drunk driver?
We often see families of murdered persons interviewed on TV outside the courtroom where they express a need for vengeance and call for execution as the only justice. But we also occasionally see families whose wish is not death for the perpetrator, but only that he is denied the freedom to kill someone else. And, rarely to be sure, we see family members express forgiveness for the perpetrator. Even after the immediate shock and horror and violent emotional reaction to such a loss has abated, how many of us could forgive such a terrible act?
Those who want revenge speak of a need for “closure,” an almost meaningless cliché. There is no permanent “closure” for suffering such a blow. It lasts, albeit less intensely, forever. Even if the killer is executed, the hurt and memory do not go away. And if the anger and bitterness linger, that can become a pathology that eats away at one's soul and metastasizes to others.
I have no idea how I would respond to one of those major tragedies.
Shortly before my mother died she told my sister a story of my father that I hadn't heard. After my infant brother died in the hospital from croup, while driving home my father had to pull over to the side of the road because he was so overwrought. The pain lasted a long time, but he turned his attention to his wife and other children and I never heard a word of anger or bitterness.
Yes, death of a family member from disease is very different from a death by murder, and I don't know how my father would have reacted if my brother had been murdered. But my feeling is that he would be devastated, but not vindictive. I think he would have, consciously or instinctively, deduced that perpetual anger and bitterness is self-destructive and can ruin the lives of those around you. One can mourn for a long time, maybe forever, and still continue to live life because life is too short to waste on self-destruction and on making those you love unhappy as well.
I don't know if I would react as I believe my father would; I hope so, because life is too short.