Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Capote's Law

“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck,” says the Dalai Lama.

Of course it doesn’t feel that way when it happens. I can’t count the number of times in life that I’ve cried and wailed with disappointment when something I wanted failed to materialize, or slipped out of my grasp.

But with time and perspective, I see that in many cases it would have been disastrous for me if things had gone “my way.”

I’m thinking of the college lover whose dream was for us to move to Lagos, Nigeria to teach English. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable life plan when I was a sophomore. I even spent time in the university library teaching myself basic phrases from an Igbo language primer, preparing for life in Nigeria. But it wasn’t meant to be. That relationship soon dissolved, and with it went the dream of moving to Lagos.

“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” wrote Truman Capote. It isn’t difficult to imagine how Capote’s law could apply here. Just look at the kidnapping and murder rates in Lagos, and Nigeria’s attitudes towards gay men, and you start to get a sense of the myriad ways our plans might have gone wrong.

This perspective only came later. At the time, I mourned the loss of that relationship, put away the Igbo language primer, and scrambled to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Not having things work out the way I wanted was a slap in the face, and it stung. But in hindsight, I’m grateful for it. That wasn’t the right relationship for me to be in, and moving to Nigeria to teach English was not in my star chart. Sometimes we need life to give us a compassionate slap in the face to wake us up.

There’s a famous story about an old man who lived on a small farm with his son and a horse. One day the horse ran away and the neighbors came to express their sympathy, telling the farmer, “Oh, that’s so terrible.” The farmer replied, “Maybe.” A couple of days later the horse came back, bringing another wild horse with it. This time the neighbors exclaimed the farmer’s great good luck at getting a new horse. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next day, the farmer’s son fell and broke his leg while trying to tame the new horse. The neighbors came again to express their sympathy, but the farmer brushed it off with another “Maybe.” A couple of weeks later, the army came through the village, looking to conscript any able-bodied young men for a new war. The farmer’s son was passed over because of his broken leg, which prompted the neighbors to exclaim the farmer’s great good fortune. “Maybe.”

You get the point. We never really know. What looks at first like good fortune may be setting us up for a disaster, and what looks like bad fortune may be saving us from something even worse. Life brings us to a fork in the road and then forces us down a path we didn’t choose. We shed tears over the road not taken, but later come to see that the path we wanted to take would have led us off a cliff. We can appreciate this lesson because hindsight is 20/20, and time heals old wounds — but in the moment, when we don’t get what we want, we are blinded by disappointment.

Every now and then, it’s good to look back at our disappointments, our misplaced hopes, the dreams that didn’t pan out, and consider the possibility that life was actually trying to bring us something better than what we wanted. “Maybe we even find redemptive value in our apparent lapses,” says philosopher Rob Brezsny. “We come to see that they saved us from some painful experience or helped us avoid getting a supposed treasure that would have turned out to be a booby prize.”

Here’s to booby prizes, to disappointments, to the dashing of misplaced hopes, to the roads not taken, and to the eventual triumphs that come to us only through failure.