Life can change in the blink of an eye. Your number comes up and you win the Lotto. Your doctor calls with a bad diagnosis. Your boss kicks you out without any warning. Your wife-to-be sits next to you on a plane.
Joan Didion puts it this way. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” she wrote in The Year Of Magical Thinking. Her husband had died at the kitchen table. Nother was ever the same again.
This happens to all of us sooner or later. One minute, you’re in your normal life. The next, you’re in somebody else’s. The story you thought was yours is not. The future you saw in the cards has been cut. And all you can do is learn how to change.
These "shocks of the real" are enlightening, even when they hurt. I was reminded of this a few months back when Fate threw me a doozie. I was napping on the living room sofa, one ordinary spring afternoon, when my partner, David, shook me awake. "You have to see this right away."
“I’m sleeping,” I told him.
“Get up. Now.”
David led me to his computer screen, which was opened to an email to me from someone I had never heard of, claiming to be my long lost brother. The note itself was extremely polite. “I don’t mean to intrude,” the sender wrote. “But we seem to have had the same father.” Now I was completely awake. I hadn’t heard from my father in 50 years; the last time I saw him, when I was four, he’d tried to kidnap me before disappearing. As a kid, I’d adapted to fatherlessness by making up stories about why he left. It must not have been his fault. Something bad must have happened to him. My mother must have driven him crazy.
In fact, according to the sender, my father had moved to Illinois, started a second family, and told his new wife that my mother, sister, and I had been killed in a car accident. I couldn't believe what I was reading. Perhaps my father wanted sympathy, or maybe he needed to invent a past to make himself seem more credible. Either way, the news was catastrophic – as far as my personal story went. Catastrophic means “to turn around” and that’s exactly what happened to me in that moment of unexpected reckoning. I had blamed my mother throughout my life for driving my father away; in fact, she’d been telling the truth all along about his lying character. Not only did he not want us, this man I never knew wanted us dead. Having grown up in a house of depressive women, I longed for a brother with whom to share this motherlode of childhood grief. Now I actually had one! This turnaround happened in less than a minute. An email arrived and my myth fell apart. Nothing would be the same again.
We think of Fate as something distant, a dramatic Hand waiting for us in the future, but Fate is with us all the time, biding its time, concealing its secrets. You’re having dinner with a family who have no idea that in two weeks their 14-year-old daughter will get hit by a car on her bike and be killed. You’re toasting New Year’s with a guy who will find out, at 11:45, that his father and stepmother have just fallen through the ice and drowned while walking their dog in a snowstorm. You’re enjoying Thanksgiving with another family who don’t know that, two weeks later, the father will die in his private plane in a freak accident. Fate is afoot at every moment. We just don’t notice because, as John Lennon said, “we’re busy making other plans” while life is actually happening.
When you’re young, you don’t believe this is true. Before you’ve been hit by the shock of the real, the illusion of permanence sustains you. You're able to lock down your sense of self with words like forever, never, and always: the entitlement for being young. You get to believe, for a while at least, that bad things happen to other people, that the status quo is guaranteed. Then one day something cracks your glass house and you realize you’ve been inside a bubble. You realize that nobody’s born with control.
You see that your life is a work of fiction that’s constantly being rewritten. The plot you invented creates its own twists; your characters carry their own bizarre secrets. The comic parts can turn suddenly tragic, the dreaded episodes: moments of glory. The narrative arc turns upside down; the end turns out to be a beginning. There’s no making sense of any of it, none whatsoever. There’s only the living, the waiting to see. And if you’re lucky, curiosity, that keeps you open, game, and brave, eager to see what happens next. Bipolar Fortune spins her wheel and you hold on for dear life. You remember Martin Buber’s dictum. “Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.” What matters is that we stay interested. We never know what will turn out to be good news.
This reminds me of the story of the farmer and his horse. Once upon a time, there was a farmer whose horse ran away. All the neighbors came around to give their condolences. “So sorry that your horse has run away, that’s too bad.”
The farmer said, “You never know.”
The next day the horse came back, bringing seven wild horses with it. Everyone came around and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky, what a great turn of events, you’ve now got eight horses.”
The farmer again said, ““You never know.”
The next day his son tried to break one of the horses and ride it, but was thrown and ended up breaking his leg. They all said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad.”
“You never know,” the farmer repeated.
The following day, the Army came around to recruit soldiers but they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. All the people came around and said, “How wonderful.”
You know what the farmer said.
Fate is rarely what it seems; that's the only thing you can count on. A month after getting my brother's email, I flew across the country to meet him. He's a right wing, ex-police chief, who believes in the NRA and divides his free time between Bible study and golf. I'm a left wing gay man with Buddhist leanings who despises guns and all they stand for. The meeting was friendly, awkward, and inconclusive. We made a vow to stay in touch. What happens from here, God only knows. And that's just fine with me.