Not so long ago, I met a friend of a friend for lunch. We’d been introduced a couple of times: a Brooklyn biergarten here and there, with small talk enough to remember that we were both Midwesterners and not much more than that. He realized we worked in the same building near NYU, and a meeting over food ensued.
In a predictably hip East Village cafe, we got to know each other better. He’s clean-looking, my acquaintance, with friendly eyes and a ready smile. Sweet. You would call him a sweet guy if you met him. Over our sandwiches, we talked about our jobs, and living in New York, and about the Green Bay Packers. Eventually, we got onto the subject of our families. He told me that each of his four siblings are scattered across the country, and that he misses them a lot. Being the oldest of four myself, I ventured the empathetic:
“I’m sure that kills your parents.”
My friend pulled his smile out of his pocket and put it onto his face, and said:
“My parents are dead.”
I said how sorry I was, because shit, what do you say to that. He was, of course, sweet about it. We moved on to more innocuous conversation.
But ever since it happened, I’ve been thinking a lot about something my own (living, just FYI) mother always said about problems in life: “everybody’s got theirs.”
There’s a character in Candide that knows more about the universal law of Everybody’s Got Theirs maybe more than any other in fiction, and it’s the Old Woman. Born the daughter of a pope and a princess, life is a many-splendored thing until the day of her wedding, when her beloved is slaughtered before her eyes hours before the ceremony.
It’s all downhill from there: she’s raped continuously by pirates, sees her mother and fancy lady friends torn limb from limb, is repeatedly sold into slavery in several countries, and almost dies of plague, then war, then earthquake. The grand finale in this Olympics of Suffering? One of her asscheeks is sliced off to feed famished soldiers.
Voltaire makes the Old Woman outwardly ugly. You can tell by looking at her that she’s been through the ringer, like you can tell with some people in real life, too—the cracked out guy in the subway in the American flag boxers and the Happy New Year hat, or the sad, slack-faced cashier at the country road gas station whose fingernails are as long as the cigarettes she sells.
Some halved-assess you can see, and some, you can’t.
I’d never have been able to tell that anything tragic had ever happened to that cheerful, well-dressed guy at lunch. And you know what, his parents dying probably wasn’t the only terrible thing that ever happened to him, either. That’s what I’m saying: everybody has theirs. Everyone.
Take me: I’m a 26-year-old woman, overeducated and outwardly confident. I’m also what they call pretty. Blonde hair, green eyes, a waist-to-hip ratio that can’t lose. You’d never be able to tell that I have a machine planted in my chest that helps to make sure my heart keeps beating.
In fact, no one who’s seen me naked or in a bathing suit or in a strapless dress since my heart surgery has commented on the scar the doctors left behind them. I wonder if they see it and don’t want to ask about it because there are other things happening in that region of my body that are more interesting, or if they see it and don’t want to ask about it because there might be a sad story behind it.
We see talking about tragedy as bad manners. Especially when we first meet someone. And I don’t get it, because, again, Everybody fucking Has Theirs, as sure as death and taxes and people not calling you back after what you thought was a fantastic first date but always calling if you thought it was terrible. It’s a universal law, or as close to one as I have ever been able to define.
So maybe if I’d been less scared of offending him, I would have told that guy:
“It blows that your parents died. I’m sorry.”
And he would have said:
“That’s okay,” just like he did say.
Only, I’d follow it up with:
“I almost died nine times, myself. Just fell over on the floor and was lucky enough to wake up instead of dying. Now, I’m a cyborg. With a machine. In my chest!”
And with relief maybe he’d say his childhood dog died on the same day as his parents, or that one of his siblings’ kids has leukemia, or that he was fired right before coming to lunch with me and heard yesterday that his best friend is marrying a neo-Nazi.
I’d respond by telling him that this time last year my fiancé broke off our engagement in an email from London the same day my wedding dress arrived, or that I was recently rejected from 20 PhD programs in English while my ex is headed to Princeton for his, or that summer always upsets me because it holds the anniversary of my best friend’s suicide at 19 years old.
That would have made for a much better lunch. Devoid of one-sided pity. Honest. And probably more appreciated because nothing shit-tastic was happening as we ate our food together, swapping tales of woe with shrugs.
There are people we pass by every day, thinking that their lives are easier than ours because they look richer, or more beautiful, or even stupider (all smart people walk around thinking they have it worst). To think this is stupidity itself. It’s to deny how crazy and absurd and unfair life is – that is, how unfair it is to everyone.
And therefore, pretty damn fair.
As the Old Woman tells us of our fellow human beings:
“If you find one person who has not cursed his life and told himself that he is the most miserable man alive, you can throw me into the sea head first.”
And that is all the reason for love and empathy and optimism we should need.