Sometimes Everything Goes Wrong
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Sometimes, everything goes wrong,
But before it goes . . .

Fifteen years ago, I read a little book by one of my favorite authors, Sheldon Kopp. A psychotherapist, he wrote books about coping with the odd circumstances in life. For instance, his most famous book was If You Meet The Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, and a more recent one, written I think after a brain tumor had interrupted his practice and his prolific writing, was What Kept You so Long? They were nearly all about trusting yourself in the face of uncertainty. This particular book, which I seem to have misplaced or given away, was entitled Here I am, wasn’t I?

His theme was that whatever your situation, good or bad, things are about to change. Don’t count on anything—except change. If things are so bad you think life isn’t worth living, then wait. It will get better. If things are so good you think you have finally made it through the bad stuff, then wait. Things will fall apart once more.

When I read the book, I took it in—I thought. Things for me had been, well, all right. Could have been better, could have been worse. I was living with a woman who seemed to embody all the characteristics I needed in a partner: open emotionally and socially, liberal politically, aware of her own deeper issues, tolerant of those who thought differently from her, rebellious against "the system" and able to be outrageous with great humor but still sensitive to the struggles of Earth’s creatures. In our four or five years together, I had learned much about myself and about what’s important—and unimportant—in life. Our relationship had weathered a number of storms, most concerning the difference between expectation and reality. Once, I had even brought up the idea of marriage, and she had emphatically declined. It was not about our relationship, she said, but about her need to keep her identity. We invested together in a house, and thought about the future.

Here I am, Wasn’t I? was typical Sheldon Kopp. There is compassion in his writing, in spite of the flip attitude suggested by his titles. Sure, I thought, I know all this. I read his books because they reinforced things I thought I knew. Maybe we all do. At any rate, I was prepared for change.

A couple of years before, when my partner came back from a canoe trip in Ontario with a group of women, enchanted, it seemed, with a particular young woman, I smiled. I would have leaped at the opportunity to spend a week in the wilderness with that particular young woman myself. It was no threat to me, and we spent a long time talking, in the atmosphere of sweet smoke, about attraction and relationships and human weakness. The faint sense of panic I felt, and talked about, was dispelled. Our relationship became stronger.

Then more recently, after a skiing weekend, she admitted to a similar attraction to another woman. No problem, I said. But then there were more weekends. As much as I had thought I had totally defeated my teen-age inclination to jealousy, I began to feel a tightness in my gut. She was understanding and solicitous.

Then it happened. "We need to talk," she said late one night.

Sheldon Kopp was right. I almost laughed at the irony. Having read the book so recently, I could almost quote passages that pertained directly to my situation. My friends were supportive. "It might take a year, but you’ll survive," they said. I wasn’t so sure, and I wasn’t so sure I wanted to wait a year to find out. I drove my car rather precariously in those days.

Actually it took more than a year for me to feel myself again, and to risk my heart with other people. By the time I had done that, I felt I had learned one more lesson about myself. I also felt more compassion toward others from whom I had, myself, disengaged in my lifetime.

Here I am, Wasn’t I? occupied a prominent place on my book shelves, reminding me often of the impermanence of things—of everything. Sheldon Kopp’s brain tumor must have reminded him of that, every day. My friends reminded me that I would survive my broken heart, and I did. That author was faced with another reality, however. If on one day he felt well enough to breathe the scent of spring flowers and a newly mown lawn, he had to know that tomorrow, perhaps, he would not. Surely he knew that his good days were to be fewer and fewer.

Perhaps, that’s the point. He wrote in one of his books, "What makes it seem unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured." Perhaps, as I struggle today against the pain in my back and in my shoulder and sometimes in my spirit, perhaps I can find a way not to struggle so much. I have come to accept the loss of a lot of things I used to think were incredibly important. My body will no longer do many of the things I want it to. Sometimes I can let go of the reins. Fighting pain doesn’t make it go away. Control, as Kopp says, is an illusion.

Does that daffodil beside my driveway think—that glorious yellow caroler of April’s delight—does it think it will live forever? A week? When it first lifts its face to the sun, does it wonder how many more suns it will see? Does it grieve as it begins to droop?

I read Sheldon Kopp because I think he’s right. That doesn’t even assure me that he is. It probably doesn’t matter. If I had known, twenty years ago, that I’d get my heart broken once again, it would have been a pity if I had thrown it all away, just to avoid the pain. That relationship—that blossom, however brief, was joy and beauty in my life. I don’t want to deny myself one more day to bloom just because it’s going to end.

Donald Skiff,  April 20, 2002

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