"If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans". -Woody Allen
We like to think we're in control of our lives, don't we?
From the smaller decisions- should I wear this blue shirt today - to the bigger ones - maybe I should have this lump looked at - we cling to the belief that we can steer our fate, grasping onto this filament of hope that if we try hard enough, work hard enough, we dictate the outcome.
Sometimes the fragility of the world slams into me clear out of the blue. Tying my shoelaces in the morning I'll be hit with a morbid thought: what if a coroner is the one untying these laces later today.
Don't be absurd, my controlling mind admonishes me as I push the nasty thought away. Because, really, how would we ever go through life if we obsessed about all the what-ifs?
We couldn't. So, in large part, we don't.
But then the phone rings and it's the doctor's office - I'm sorry, it's cancer - or your sister - come quick, Dad isn't doing well - and in the blink of an eye you're sailing off down a road you never saw coming. And certainly not one you would ever choose.
My friend Kim ordered a necklace from me, a double-sided stamped pendant. On one side she wanted "Boston" and on the other "25.5". Why? Because she ran in the marathon this year, the one watched by the whole world as bombs exploded at the finish line. She was stopped at mile 25.5, informed about the chaos unfolding .7 miles away and left to wonder and worry about the fate of loved ones waiting to cheer her on at the finish line.
Except this year, there would be no finish line for Kim, and so many others.
The thing is, she worked hard for this goal. She trained, focused and diligent, determined to cross that finish line, to feel back in control of a life that had buffeted her about in its unpredictable winds for the past year. This was to be her return to herself, not just the staggering accomplishment of running 26.2 miles.
To Kim, those last .7 miles represented a sense of completion - one book closed with a sharp slap, and the chance to pick up a new story, the fresh unread pages full of hope and promise.
She debated what to put on the pendant. "Should I stamp it 26.2?" she asked me, her brows knit in confusion. "That's how long it was supposed to be. That's what I trained for."
We talked about that day, about victory being snatched from her hands. Of course she grappled with feelings of guilt, that she felt so robbed, when so many others suffered worse fates.
"Pain is pain," I said, simply. "It happened to you, and it hurts."
She decided on 25.5 because, she said, "that's the truth. That's what happened".
Ever since this conversation with Kim I haven't been able to shake it from my mind. It seems like a small thing, but it's not.
How we handle adversity says way more about our character, our grit, the very core of who we are, than the way we handle the things that come easily.
When your road veers sharply off to the left, just as you're preparing to turn right, your life feels out of control. This isn't my road, you think. I wanted to go that way. Even as that right turn you were supposed to take drops out of sight - lost forever to the unrelenting passing seconds, minutes, hours and days - you crane your neck back over your shoulder, grieving the lost path. Your path.
It's easy to feel victimized. Heck, it feels good, sometimes, to feel victimized. Better to be a victim than swallow the hard, bitter pill of bad choices.
Sometimes we are the victim - of circumstance, of teenage bombers hell-bent on a deranged mission, of a rogue group of cells that silently and steadfastly divide in your body gobbling up healthy cells as the cancer spreads, of the truck that veers sharply into your lane on the highway.
Sometimes we make ourselves the victim, believing that we can't stop drinking because we're deeply flawed in some fundamental way.
Sometimes we make astonishingly bad choices, even though we are good people with the best of intentions.
That's life: a chaotic slurry of circumstance and choice.
Because even as we trot down that left-hand path, the one we didn't choose to follow, we still have choices. We can lose ourselves to hopelessness, grief or fear. We can mourn the loss of the path-not-taken, the one we worked so hard for, the one we believed was our birth right, crane our necks around to watch it fall into the distance and shake our fists at the heavens and ask, WHY?
Or, we can sweep our eyes to the front, to the path we're actually on at any given moment. We can take a deep breath and say, here I am.
I bet Kim had played the image of herself victoriously crossing that finish line in her head dozens of times. How else could she train that long and hard? Every cold, drizzly day she chose to run - to train - instead of sitting on her couch, she did because she could taste that finish line.
She never pictured herself, bewildered and scared, at mile 25.5, wondering where it all went so wrong.
Now she wears her necklace that bears witness to where she is, though, not where she thought she'd be. She is choosing to lean into the truth.
I think that is a whole lot braver than crossing any finish line.
Because sometimes? That finish line is more like a punch line, and God is the one laughing.