great catastrophe

November 12, 2001

So last Monday, I left the studio and climbed into my car on a lovely autumn day. I was listening to oldies and just cruising down highway 94. It was a nice day — until I was attacked by that deer.

Yup, a deer flung itself right into my car. After driving his body directly into the front end, the force of the collision threw him right over my hood, destroying it, before he headed straight for my windshield — all in a suicidal plot to take my head off.

It was a big deer — one big kamikaze deer. Big enough to cause more than three grand worth of damage to my car. It was a calamity. Luckily, I escaped unharmed. But, it did ruin a perfectly good day.

Now, I could just assume that I was attacked by a crazed deer, or that I was a victim of mad deer disease. Or I could just say, “Well, stuff happens.” Because stuff does happen, doesn’t it?

With all the stuff that happens, we do the best we can with the stuff that is left. After all, that’s the stuff of life.

All this got me thinking that life really is just one grand catastrophe, and the calamities are just part of the whole trip. They aren’t things that happen to you (or against you or in spite of you) in life; they are all a part of life itself.
When people complain to me about bad things happening to them, I just say, ‘Welcome to the grand catastrophe.” Then they complain that because they are such good people, these bad things shouldn’t happen to them — as though there are other, less worthy people out there to whom bad things should happen more often. If bad things only happened to bad people, it wouldn’t be a catastrophe, would it?

If you accept life as it is, the complaining really diminishes.
I try not to complain much. I just kind of accept it all. I refuse to allow myself to feel like a victim. Victims complain. I always take whining and complaining as a sign that the whiner is expressing feelings of powerlessness — in addition to just annoying me.

So many of us feel like we are the victims of our own story. But the fact that catastrophes happen doesn’t mean that we can’t still choose our role in our own story. We can decide that we are perpetually victimized by forces beyond our control or we can accept life — all of life, good, bad and indifferent — and live it to the fullest.

You will notice that people who seem to complain and whine a lot seem to believe that if they complain and whine enough, somebody or something out there will take care of whatever it is that is bothering them. And it tends to be the very thing that they basically aren’t willing to be responsible for in the first place. When nothing or nobody shows up to save them from their victimhood, they usually just go to a higher level of complaining.

The alternative is to choose to be the heroes of our stories. And why wouldn’t we choose to be — since we are going to live the story, isn’t it better to be the hero?

Making that choice starts with responsibility. Simply put: you have to be responsible for your own life. It takes understanding that while you may not deal the hand, you have the determination to play the hand as well as it can be played. If you lose this particular game…well, then you’ll learn from it and win the next one. If that doesn’t work, take the responsibility and find a different game.

We can all be the heroes of our lives.

Most of it is really about just showing up and paying attention. If you’re going to choose timidity and fear, it’s unlikely that you are going to show up for most of what life has to offer. A risk-free life is one way to avoid feeling like a victim, but it kind of lacks verve. It’s basically boring, filled with dull colors and muted sounds. It’s safe — but since we are all going to die at the end of the story anyway, what is the point of being safe?

There is a wonderful old Appalachian saying that I picked up when I worked down there in the ‘60s. It goes like this: “The sun shines on those folks with the good sense to get out and stand in it.” I wonder how many people follow this sage advice nowadays?

For example — I live near a beautiful, pristine lake. On a hot summer day, there is nothing like the feeling of swimming out to the middle of that lake and floating on my back as I gaze up at the sky. But on a typical hot summer weekend, I am one of just a handful of people actually in the lake.

Apparently, everybody else who lives near this lake is afraid of it. They say, “Eww, it has fish in it and turtles and even snakes!” That’s what they say!
So these folks who fear a lovely lake instead choose to throw themselves into “nice,” “safe” swimming pools. Pools that are loaded with chlorine and about a half-dozen other toxic chemicals.

Actually, I am not the only person who dares to submerge myself in the waters of the lake. There are two other courageous people in the lake with me: my mother and her good friend Eleanor. Two eighty-year-old women bravely go into this lake and spend the afternoon floating around in their old inner tubes. They have been doing this for fifty years now, and have yet to be attacked by a trout. My mother knows how to enjoy life. Like me, she just dives right in there and then deals with the consequences.

It sure beats staying on the shore all your life and going, “Gee, I wonder what it would be like to dive in there?”

So part of life is just showing up. Showing up for the present.
But, so, say that we show up — what good is that if we aren’t paying attention? I think of paying attention as the cost of the ticket for life. We have to pay attention. That’s what life costs. If we aren’t willing to pay that, then we can live our lives — but we’ll never truly be alive.

People complain that opportunities never come their way. I usually respond that I can see tons of opportunities all around them — I can also see that they are not paying attention. And I know that because I am paying attention.
Show up and pay attention. Hell, what’s the worst that can happen?

And if you need any more motivation to start taking responsibility for your own life, think about this: if you aren’t the author of your life, then somebody else will be. Now, there are those of you who might say that God is the author. But to that point, I would remind you that God gave us free will for a reason.
Look around in our communities and notice the folks who decide that they are going to be the heroes of their own story. One person comes to mind for me.

Several years ago I met a woman, Joy Hanson, who was tired of complaining that the state of New York had such lousy policies for helping families with troubled teenagers. Joy had never organized anything in her life, but she decided that if she didn’t do it, nobody else was going to. She didn’t say, “It can’t be done,” or “A person like me can’t do it.” She just did it. At first, it was baby steps, then it was a movement that went to the state legislature and got those laws changed for the better.

Two and a half years ago, there was no Green Party in Orange County. Leslie Farney decided that she felt powerless to have any real role within the two dominant political parties. But she wasn’t going to wait for somebody else to do it for her. She decided to write her own story, and in this past election, Orange County had the most Green Party candidates on the ballot in the United States. Now you may not agree with the Green Party, but I sure hope you are all proud to live in a community where we have folks who have the guts to make things happen.

My car is still in the body shop, by they way. The original estimate was more than I could afford, but I didn’t worry about it. I called my body shop guy, Rich, explained my situation and told him what I wanted done. I saved a thousand dollars by not letting something that wasn’t going to work for me happen. Simple.

So no, I was not attacked by a deer. A bad thing did not happen to me. Both of us — the deer and I — just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our paths just crossed at a bad moment.
It happens sometimes in this grand catastrophe.