Nothing goes exactly as planned. No vacation or visit is perfect. Some part of every meal won’t be ready when the rest of the dishes are served. Guests come too early or late, leave too soon — or not soon enough. Complications, delays, bumps in the road are the companions to pretty much everything.
Then there are the things that almost happen. When I had just come back from Israel, I took a three-day weekend from my new job to visit friends in San Diego. I bought a new weekend carry-on bag. It’s still my favorite travel bag. That bag was the best part of the trip. I bought tickets to San Diego which was not easy because most cross-country flights out of Boston go to Oakland, SF, or LA — none of which are even close to San Diego. And I hadn’t rented a car.
I got to the airport, but my departing flight never arrived. I sat in the waiting lounge for five hours. When my connecting flight in Salt Lake City had already departed, there was obviously nowhere for me to go. I requested my money back. The perky young thing at the ticket counter explained, “These are non-refundable tickets. See? It says so right here. We can get you on a flight to Los Angeles tomorrow afternoon. How’s that?”
I was not feeling perky. “I took a three-day weekend from work. I won’t get those hours back. I’m not interested in Los Angeles or anything that goes anywhere tomorrow. Los Angeles is at least a 3 hour drive to San Diego and I don’t have a car. By the time I get there — if I got there — I’d have to turn around and come right back. I’ve had to spend money on taxis and I’ve lost my holiday time which I’ve spent in an airport waiting room. If you can’t get me to San Diego today, return my money.” I got my money back. After which I took a taxi home. I spent the weekend having an orgy of self-pity. I never got to San Diego. Eventually, I lost touch with those friends and life moved on.
Our fondest illusion is control, that we are in charge of our lives — or ought to be. We spend a staggering amount of effort trying to wrestle life into our own shape. How else can we succeed? You’ve got to be in charge, right? The promise we get as children is one on which we build a world.
No matter what you want, no matter how unlikely it is, or how unqualified you are,
you’re sure that trying harder will solve the problem.
It’s the biggest lie we learn as children. It establishes a belief that if we do all the right stuff, we can get what we want, no matter what. It’s the trying that counts. It’s got to be true because our teachers, parents — pretty much everyone — told us so. Good work will inevitably be rewarded. Kindness will be returned. If we eat right, keep fit, avoid drugs, cigarettes, and booze, we’ll be healthy forever. All the stuff that happens to other people will not happen to us because we are special. Mom said so. Dad said so. My sixth-grade teacher said so.
From all the little stuff that goes wrong — flights cancelled, vacations rained out — to failed marriages and jobs lost, life and time strips us of the illusions with which we grew up. Injustice shows itself in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, from tiny indignities to incomprehensible cruelties and calamities. No one is immune. We learn we are passengers on the bus we call life. We aren’t driving and don’t even know what road we’re on. Nor have we any idea of our destination or the stops along the way.
Finally, I get it. The bus is going where it’s going. Outside, it’s beautiful. We don’t have to drive. We don’t need to control the bus. Where we are going is irrelevant.
It isn’t about getting what we want. It’s the journey that matters.