When I was in my late teens, sittin’ around waitin’ for my life to begin (while, as Springsteen sings, “it was all just slippin’ away“), I wrecked the family car. Drove it off a country road not far from our house on the way to taking my little brother to some kind of music practice. I remember it well: A left turn taken too quickly and leaned into a little too cavalierly, an unexpected slide on the gravelly edge of the road, a sudden overcorrected jerk of the steering wheel, then the trusty Donovan wagon re-grabbing the pavement, lurching across the two lanes of macadam, popping a fence post, bringing down a strand of barbed wire and settling, nose first, into a drainage ditch.
You know what else I remember? Sitting in that stupid ditch, seconds after that old Ford came to its unplanned stop, and instantly feeling sorry for myself.
My folks never, ever let me take the family car anywhere. It was our only car. It wasn’t to be entrusted to a relatively rookie driver. But on this day, for some reason, they handed me the keys. It was just a little errand, but they asked me to run it with the understanding that I was old enough, mature enough, skilled enough to get there and back without incident.
And I blew it. Couldn’t even pull off a simple trip. I wrecked the car.
How was Dad going to pay for this?, I thought in that first eerie moment post-wreck, the car still creaking in agony. Would I have to pay for this? How was Dad going to get to work? How was I going to get to work? How were my little brothers going to get to where they needed to go?
(Oh yeah, I thought, still sitting in the wreck: How was my little brother doing in the back seat? I turned and looked.)
(Surprised, as I remember. But fine.)
I remember screaming, too: “Why me? Why me?“
And I remember crying. Hard. Bawling.
I was 18, maybe 19, recently graduated from high school, a grown-ass man in my book, and I was sobbing out in the middle of nowhere because I failed my folks, failed myself, and failed my little brother. (Really, he was fine; we both were.) All I could think was, “Why me?“
Pathetic? Well, yeah. Pathetically pathetic.
In the 2020 Booker Prize-winning novel Shuggie Bain, Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart labels that brand of self-pity the “poor mes.” In the book, set in 1980s-era Glasgow, Shuggie is the youngest child of an alcoholic mother and a philandering, mostly absent father. Shuggie is confused by his own sexuality, shamed and abused by other children, burdened with caring for his proud but broken mother, simply trying to survive in an era of crushing poverty. It’s a book filled with sad characters who rightfully could succumb to the “poor mes” but who, miraculously, mostly don’t.
It’s the type of story that makes you think, “Well, crap, all I did was wreck the car.”
I got over my poor mes quickly enough after the crash, thanks to a cool-headed father who convinced me (after he made me help some farmer re-string that fence I drove through) that a young man on the brink of adulthood, on the cusp of something adult-like, shouldn’t be wailing, “Why me?” after a stupid fender bender. Especially a one-car fender bender.
I have since learned, as we all do careening through life, that accidents big and small befall us all at one time or another. They are, both big and small, part of the trip. My dad was fond of saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I’ve expanded that, learning not to sweat most stuff. It’s served me well.
This all came thudding home again recently after finishing Shuggie Bain and reading some of the latest from Frank Bruni in The New York Times. A few years ago, Bruni, a longtime columnist who now teaches at Duke, woke up one morning to what he called “freakishly blurred vision” in one eye. It was, doctors told him, probably permanent. And it eventually could affect his other eye. For someone who observes for a living, not being able to see is a big deal.
Like most of us would, Bruni spent some time dabbling in the “poor mes.” But as his vision in his good eye steadied, his outlook did, too. “Bit by bit,” he writes, “the people around me came into sharper focus, by which I mean that their fears, struggles and triumphs did.”
We all have friends and family going through things, which is to say going through life. My wife and I are slapped into reality every week or so by another twinge or blemish or ache that comes with the late middle-age territory that we’re navigating. My brother just had a major health scare, one that’s not yet resolved. Another just made it through a heart operation. My sister and several of my brothers have diabetes. My in-laws are in their 80s; when you’re in your 80s, going through things is called daily living.
We have friends who are lonely, friends who are sick, friends who did not make it through the pandemic, friends who still struggle with it. Friends who are out of jobs. Or in ones they hate. Friends with family problems. Friends who are separated from family.
Our son lives 2,000 miles away, an emptiness we feel every day. I get it.
Crying? Feeling sorry for yourself because of life’s latest bump? Even big bumps? It’s natural. A bit of self-pity may even seem to help sometimes. (Certainly, the struggles we go through, no matter how they appear to others, can be acute. If they’re real to us, they’re real. Nobody should minimize them.)
But you know what also helps? Looking around. Acknowledging that others suffer, too. If misery doesn’t necessarily love company, it should at least know it when it sees it. Understanding that someone else’s suffering is as real to them as yours is to you is realizing that we’re all human.
“To feel sorry for yourself,” Bruni writes, “is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.”
Every once in a while, despite my vow not to sweat stuff, I’ll drive into a metaphorical ditch in a metaphorical mid-1970s Ford station wagon (^) and wonder, “Why Me?” But the truth is — the truth always has been — that it’s never just me. It’s not just you, either. It’s all of us at one time or another.
If we remember that, if we acknowledge that we all get into wrecks, if we can offer a little help when someone inevitably wanders off the road, it really never has to be about poor me.
(This popped into my head as I read Shuggie and Bruni and was writing this post. Can’t get it out now. It was popularized by Linda Ronstadt, but written by Warren Zevon.)
Well I met a girl in West Hollywood
Well I ain’t naming names
But she really worked me over good
She was just like Jesse James
She really worked me over good
She was a credit to her gender
She put me through some changes Lord
Sort of like a Waring blender
Poor poor pitiful me, poor poor pitiful me
These young girls won’t let me be
Lord have mercy on me, woe is me