She was never one of the naysayers – those who blamed my troubles on poor choices (muttering that I should have known better), poor attitude (didn’t I realize that I could change any outcome?), or karmic retribution for unknown misdeeds – dropping me into a deep, dark black hole.
Whether it was the years of drama dealing with my ex, the run-around with an insurance company after a car accident, the irretrievably lost website by a hosting provider (Murphy’s Law), or the inept healthcare and legal providers that ran up debts (and yielded less than desirable results) – many of my friends either stated or implied that whatever I was going through, it must be my fault.
This friend was not among them. She knew me to be clear-headed enough to approach most situations in logical fashion. She took what was beyond my control to be precisely that, though she often remarked that in her own life, especially after passing 50, she’d intentionally done everything, absolutely everything, to make her middle years as simple and uncomplicated as possible.
Simplifying Life to Reduce Risk (and Have Fun)
Convinced that if she simplified her life, she would reduce the risk of disruption and have more fun, she traded in any yearning for a roomy home in order to eliminate maintenance and minimize expenses. The result was more time and also, the freedom of more money.
On the career front, after a period of unemployment a few years earlier, she was increasingly aware of being overqualified for what was available. Rather than continuing to fight for senior positions in a tough economy, she was able to rely on her then-spouse’s income while transitioning to an entirely new career. It was lower paying, equally long hours, but one she found satisfying and with less stress.
So far so good, right?
In fact, her life was simpler, in part by virtue of explicit choices. She did, however, admit to relative luck when it came to the timing and process of her midlife divorce – her children were grown, she had a steady job, and she and her soon-to-be ex didn’t engage in a long and costly battle.
When the Storm Hits
It wasn’t until a series of events hit – most, if taken on their own, of the upsetting-but-manageable variety – that her perspective began to change. You know the sort of thing. Problems with two teeth yielded a dental bill representing some two months of gross pay. Her 10-year old reliable car was in the shop more often, with price tags in the $700 to $1200 range for repairs. A government agency lost critical paperwork. That last has been straightened out, but it took a few months to accomplish it, and the other issues remain ongoing.
Now add the fact that her condo flooded while she was away for a weekend eight weeks ago – the result of a building snafu, and her place is currently uninhabitable.
She continues to receive conflicting stories from her insurance company and condo association, and she’s living out of a suitcase and staying with a friend – indefinitely. Meanwhile, she leaves messages and emails, trying to get resolution.
She also recently discovered that caretakers for one of her elderly parents were utterly disorganized when it came to certain basic tasks. She’s making the necessary changes, but is also hunting down missing personal items, reconciling outstanding bills, and generally, expending time she doesn’t have to clean up that situation.
Daily Details Mire Us in Depression
Never have I seen this friend depressed. For that matter, never have I known her to be down – or stay down – for more than a few days when confronted with almost any set of circumstances.
While any one of these unforeseen incidents might be viewed as an irritation, the onslaught, which has gone on for many months (and is likely to continue), is the nightmare that too many live with: indifference, incompetence, and in general, mediocrity. I sometimes wonder if this feels worse for those of us who actually recall a time when the quality of personal service mattered, and when a happy customer was a source of pride.
As for these messes that are not of our making, we muddle through, hoping we don’t have to engage attorneys, typically racking up debt to do so. But when the shit storm drags on for months and even years, as expenses and unpleasant encounters pile up in the process, the stress takes its toll – on our jobs, on our relationships, on our health.
My once ever cheerful friend tells me every few days: “I don’t understand. I gave up a lot to arrange my life so it would be simpler. To minimize risk. I make decisions carefully. I treat people fairly. Why is this happening?”
How to Be a Friend: Listen, Don’t Judge
As I’ve listened to her pour out the details of events out of her control, each new item costing time, money, inconvenience, and worry – I’m noting a transformation. This once eternally upbeat person is angrier, and more often. She is venting her frustration, which she tells me is seeping into every aspect of her life. She doesn’t want to become bitter, but she’s beginning to understand bitterness in a way that is new and very personal.
I didn’t need to say the words: Now you know what it’s been like for me, for years.
I hold my tongue. I offer no judgment. I listen.
“So much is broken,” she says. “We pay people too little, we work them too hard, they’re in the wrong jobs or improperly trained. After awhile they don’t care any longer, so the services they deliver are rendered poorly. And we wind up paying the price through no fault of our own.”
My little world, for the moment, is relatively stable… knock on wood. While I would never, never wish any of this on anyone, as I hear her talk, I feel oddly relieved in one respect, observing how events are reshaping her views on life.
“I hate that this is happening to you,” I say. “You’ve never judged me. But now you’re living the experience of your attitude being soured by the daily deluge that is not letting up. And none of it is your doing.”
“Yes,” she says.
Context, Perspective, Toughing it Out
“There’s nothing you could have done differently to prevent this,” I say. “You’ve done everything possible to simplify your life. You do treat people fairly. These events are out of your control. But you’re healthy, your kids are healthy, you have a steady job. All you can do is try to breathe, keep your cool if you can, and know that I’ll be here to listen when you need me.”
I wonder if my advice is little more than empty words. Yes, she’s grateful for her job and because she’s salaried, hours spent fighting on so many fronts don’t mean dollars disappearing from her paycheck. She’s grateful for her good health, and the energy to battle the bullshit. She’s relieved there’s no sign of admonishment or judgment on my part – only recognition that when so much goes wrong at once, toughing it out can wear us out.
And in order to tough it out, we need support. We need our friends. If we’re in a relationship, we need our partner’s unequivocal support. But we also need a society that isn’t a perpetual squeeze on resources, in which indifference to mediocrity becomes the norm.
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