We witness misery every day on our television screens – but when John Travolta’s son died this past January, it affected me in a special way. I connected to that great photograph of the two of them, nose to nose. You could see how much he loved the boy.
It was just another reminder of one of life’s harshest realities: No one, no matter how rich or famous, escapes the tragedies inherent in human existence. The only thing different about tragedy in the life of a high-profile person is that it feels close to home to the rest of us. That’s because, in a vicarious way, we feel like we know that individual on a personal level.
An even bigger reality that the Travolta tragedy brought home to me is how we go along so merrily in life – especially when we are prosperous and healthy – not really thinking about the inevitable bad stuff just over the horizon. And to a great extent, it’s a good thing that we have the capacity to ignore the inevitable sadness that looms ahead, lest we be perpetually depressed.
In his book Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Bottonsays:
“Though the terrain of frustration may be vast – from a stubbed toe to an untimely death – at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality.
“The collisions begin in earliest infancy, with the discovery that the sources of our satisfaction lie beyond our control and that the world does not reliably conform to our desires.”
An understatement, to be sure. Even if you are the embodiment of a positive mental attitude, a harsh reality will, from time to time and without warning, collide with your desires and best-laid plans. Where a positive attitude comes in is not so much in believing that nothing bad will ever happen, but in helping us handle the bad things when they occur.
Later in the book, Botton quotes Seneca as saying:
“We never anticipate evils before they actually arrive. … So many funerals pass our doors, yet we never dwell on death. So many deaths are untimely, yet we make plans for our own infants: how they will don the toga, serve in the army, and succeed to their father’s property.”
When I was in the seventh grade, I came to school one day and noticed that the chair behind me, where Walter Graves sat, was empty. When class began, our teacher said to us, “I’m sorry to tell you that Walter Graves passed away yesterday.”
I knew Walter only well enough to say hello. He seemed like a nice enough kid – quiet and a bit shy. Then, one day – just like that – he was gone. It was my first introduction to mortality. The boy who sat right behind me died! No further explanation was given to the class.
Finally, Botton says:
“There is a dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for.”
Those of us who are members of that most solemn of all clubs – the one that reverses the natural chronological order of things – can relate all too well to this. Losing a child is something that cannot be fully understood by an outsider. Members of the Reversal of Nature Club are painfully familiar with the “dangerous innocence in having an expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability.”
Now, my youngest son has reached the age of 20 – the age of immortality. Do you remember when you were 20? I do. I never for a moment allowed reality to interfere with the way I lived my life. Walter Graves was but a distant memory when I was 20. I threw caution to the winds and enjoyed my immortality. The people in the funeral processions that passed my door were just actors on my personal stage of life.
Last week, my 20-year-old son’s immortality had a brush with reality. He nearly totaled his car. Luckily, no one was seriously injured. The fallout, however – an upcoming court date to face a reckless driving charge, a $500 deductible to pay on a $10,000 repair job, a probable monthly increase of $100 or more on his car insurance – has been enormous.
And those things pale in comparison to the stress all this has caused him and his fearful thoughts about how, but for the grace of God, someone could have been killed. Not to mention two months of being without a car. (Longer if his license is suspended.)
Funny how life works. One of the most beneficial experiences a young person can have is to be in a serious automobile accident in which all parties escape uninjured. I thought about that when my son kept telling me how much he had learned as a result of his accident. We shall see.
As for the Travoltas and the rest of us who have become unwitting members of the Reversal of Nature Club, we are humbled by the reality that no one escapes the tragedies of life, that there is such a thing as the inevitable, and that, no matter how positive we may be, we are powerless to alter certain events.
Having said this, we are free to choose how we prepare for, and react to, such events. And when all is said and done, no one can teach us how to excel at that. It is one of life’s great challenges in a world filled with more tragedy and uncertainty than ever before in human history – a challenge worthy of considerable time and effort on our part.
On reflection, perhaps the best way to deal with the inevitability of tragedy and sadness is to think of life as a game – and, as Robert DeRopp put it in his book The Master Game, to seek a game worth playing. Having found the game, play it with intensity. Play as if your life and sanity depend upon it… because they do.[Ed. Note: Are you living your life to the fullest? If not, now’s the perfect time to aim for something you’ve always wanted to accomplish. Learn how ETR can help make your dreams come true right here.]