I was working on something else for today’s post, but then I got distracted. My daughter stepped on a snake. Unfortunately it was a copperhead, and it bit her. She’s in the hospital, getting all the appropriate care, and she’ll be fine, but some best-laid plans are out the window. Having your kid in the ER being pumped full of morphine and antivenin makes even a laissez-faire parent like me uneasy, and I found myself thinking about stepping on snakes as a metaphor.
We’ve all stepped on snakes in the past, right? You have if you’re my age — probably several snakes by now. Some of them get you with their toxic venom; others don’t even really bite, in which case you might not even know how lucky you are, stepping on that snake, with no consequences.
It’s an interesting exercise, discovering how people respond to the news when your life goes awry. I have a good friend who stepped on a metaphorical snake a couple of weeks ago. One of HER good friends responded in a way I’m personally familiar with from my own snake-stepping past: that “friend” got busy and delineated all the (illogical, delusional) ways in which that particular snake could have been avoided, and thus how the resulting injury was no more than what one could expect under the circumstances. Now, the reasoning by this “friend” was batshit crazy, but there WAS reasoning. The reasoning looks like this: some people want to believe that when Bad Things Happen then it’s your fault in some way; that if you were just paying more attention it could have been avoided. Because those same people don’t want to believe that on the wrong day, that branch might fall or that bus might swerve or you might trip on the stairs and that’s that and it’s not your fault and there was nothing you could have done.
These thoughts rattled around in my head this morning, a time when my regular approach is to focus on the actual world of flowers and bugs and bunnies and daylight around me on my walk to the subway. I was thinking about the Buddhist notion of “all life is suffering.” I’m not a Buddhist, and that sentiment as rendered in English always seemed irritatingly dreary and vaguely off-message. Recently I read this put forth in a new way that made sense to me: once we pass from the living-in-the-moment stage of childhood into being aware of our own mortality, we spend the rest of our lives trying to find a psychic workaround or an escape or a way to bear the unbearable idea that our existence is finite. We retreat to the past, in memory and wishes about things that could have been different; we look ahead, catastrophizing or trying to ward off evil with planning, endless planning. We are everywhere but here, now. We are seldom (and only with great effort) in the present, wakeful and aware of what’s around us, the now that’s the only real thing, if you think about it.
Sometimes, the hardest thing is not to go down fighting, but to accept what is. Acceptance in this sense is not endorsement; it’s not approval. It’s the sorting of the reality from the fantasy or the nightmare. My daughter stepped on a snake; there’s not much point to her (or me) sitting around thinking about how great it would be if she hadn’t, or that this wouldn’t happen if she never set foot in the woods again. The woods are too beautiful, and the day is too short.