In the past few weeks, I’ve heard several stories from accomplished people about how glad they were that something they really wanted didn’t work out. In all three cases, the “failure” of the first opportunity opened a window for something else far more rewarding and life-altering.
First there was Nora Ephron’s essay in the New Yorker about how not receiving an expected fortune from her uncle’s will forced her to finish writing the screenplay she was struggling with; the screenplay turned out to be When Harry Met Sally. Then there was Lissa’s dispatch from the New York leg of her book tour, during which her dashed hopes of a busy speaking schedule paved the way for a host of unexpected and amazing events. And then as I was listening to NPR in my car, I heard comedian/storyteller Mike Birbiglia tell an interviewer that he never would have written his hit one-man show that carved out a unique niche for him in comedy had the pilot of his sitcom had been picked up by CBS a few years earlier.
Life is crazy that way, I thought.
As I sat at what must have been every traffic light between my errands and my home, I started thinking about my own fortunate misfortunes. There was the bitter disappointment of being outbid on the first condo my husband and I tried to buy, followed by the surprise purchase of the exact place we had coveted for years. There was the string of dance shows I wasn’t invited to perform in, which spurred me to create my own monthly gig where I started to truly find my voice. There must have been others…
And then I glanced in the rearview mirror, and saw my sleeping son in the backseat. My nine-month old son who is the very essence of joy. My son who is so much his delightful own self already that I can’t imagine our family without him. My son who was a long time coming, and who almost wasn’t because another almost was.
Before my son was conceived, I had a “chemical pregnancy,” (a very early miscarriage before the egg implants fully). After more than a year of trying to get pregnant, having three days of hope end in an “I’m sorry, let’s try again” phone call from the doctor’s office was crushing. Fortunately, the good news phone call came a month later, so I didn’t have much time to lose myself in the “what-ifs.” Although I never thought about who that other person might have been, the pain of that near miss was intense. But now, head over heels in love with my son, I often think that if I had known then what I know now…
Of course, the point is that we don’t know then what we know now. Ever. It’s easy now to look back on the disappointing moments as blessings. But remembering the positive stories and their lessons in the moment of disappointment? That’s a whole lot harder. It can happen, though, and it can be powerful. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not just trying to put a rosy glow on everything, and I don’t want to deny myself or anybody else the opportunity to grieve. (Because let’s face it, don’t you kind of want to smack the person who suggests that everything will be fine and you should just buck up?) But I do think it’s important to try to find perspective in order to cope. And one of the great things about stories – whether they’re novels, or movies, or own histories – is that they provide perspective.
We all have our own when-a-door-closes-a-window-opens stories, but in the deepest, downest moments, I find that it’s harder to remember my own than others’. This is why I think it’s especially important to hear others’ stories, whether they’re from people we know or people we only think we know, like Nora Ephron and Mike Birbiglia. Maybe their stories have more power than my own because they make me feel less alone, or because they remind me that adversity affects even the people I respect and admire, or because they give me a model for hope that it’s easier than digging deep down into myself when all I’m dug out.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had a big bank of these stories that we could share with each other and reach for when we need them the most? Like a medicine cabinet for the heartsick and the ego-bruised. Do you have a story of a fortunate misfortune? Will you share it here? It just might take the sting out of someone else’s pain. And maybe even out of your own someday.
Life is crazy that way.
Looking both backwards and forwards,
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