Fantastic Friday: Why Bad Stuff Happens in Literature

The day I moved into my house, I was driving with my corgis in my packed car in the first of a dozen trips to the new place. The road, a minor highway, settled from a crowded interchange near my old home to more of an abandoned, rural highway (when it wasn’t rush hour).

As I drove that first car-load to my new home, moving the corgis forever away from the crowded townhome to their palace of greenspace, a man and his son were driving just in front of me. No one else was around, and I gave him plenty of space. I’m not sure if he was distracted by a phone, or a conversation with his son, or perhaps he dozed off. But in front of me, his car violently veered toward the right shoulder. Then, he overcompensated for the move, pulling hard to the left.

By this time, I saw what was happening and slowed way down, preparing to ease into the grassy median if need be.

The world moved in slow motion as his car spun, first lifting onto two tires, then settling on all fours to do a 180, then a full 360.

He came to a stop just as I passed by at a crawl. I glanced over to see him checking on his son. He seemed okay, and in the rearview mirror I saw the person far behind us pull over to help. With two dogs and a day of moving ahead of me—and noticeably shaken—I kept moving.

But as I unpacked my car for that first load, the first of many, I took stock of the situation. When I awoke that morning, the excitement of moving into a new home was tempered with the mental complaining of the day ahead: it was a day of hard labor. It was June and humid, and the plethora of boxes were all heavy, not to mention that many were still waiting on the third floor of the townhome.

The incident with the car startled me into a renewed outlook. Instead of complaining about having to lug boxes thirty miles all day, up and down flights of stairs, I became grateful that I was alive to do so. It wouldn’t have taken many changes in that morning’s events for me to have ended up in a completely different place. Injured, maimed, dead… I guess maybe I needed a reminder to be grateful instead of a reason to complain.

Strangely enough, just this week, almost the same thing happened. It was on the same stretch of highway and around the same time of morning. I was returning from an errand, and a car in front of me—about the same distance as the last time, with no one else in our immediate area, made a similar move.

Without warning, the car in front of me veered onto the shoulder. At first I thought the driver was distracted by a phone and surely would pull back onto the road. But instead, the car kept its highway speed as it ran off into the shoulder—a grassy embankment running down into a natural gutter until it climbed back up a steep hill. Once again the world slowed for me as I watched.

The car moved as if in a movie, accelerating along the embankment. Surely, I thought, it would flip. Instead of slowing, the car kept its speed. It seemed to take forever for the driver to realize she was off the road—I assume she had fallen asleep. When she did, she overcompensated, and at full speed she pulled the wheel hard, spinning in an immediate 360. The front tires hit pavement, but the back stayed on the grass, creating a strange spinning pattern as she circled twice.

I had slowed by this point, and once again moved to the left lane, wondering how far onto the median I could go without risking getting stuck or crossing into oncoming traffic. The spinning car seemed to teeter forever, and I calculated where it might strike my car, and at what speed, wondering if the baby car seat would be safe or whether it would be better for me to brake hard and do something drastic.

Surprisingly, the woman, after doing another 180 and turning her car around, accelerated immediately to highway speed and continued down the road. I was quite shaken myself, and I couldn’t imagine how or why she would continue driving—maybe fear of a watching police officer?

In any case, the whole way home I had a different perspective on life. Whereas I had been bemoaning my lack of sleep with a new baby at home, I now thanked the Powers That Be that I had a healthy baby to return home with, one that could thankfully keep me up the following night.

I am reminded of my students, who always wonder why “bad stuff” always happens in literature. They wonder why we can’t read a book in which there is nothing but “pleasant, happy stuff.” I tell them what I told myself after these two near-accidents.

When things are going well in our lives, we seldom reflect. We accept, enjoy, and move on. It’s the bad times in our lives that make us appreciate what we have—what could so easily be lost. It’s not an easy skill to develop, being appreciative of what we have without the threat of it being taken away. It seemst o be part of human nature, the need to reflect on the negative in order to appreciate the positive. Is that why we still read Oedipus Rex and why Shakespearean tragedy is still performed to this day?

Sometimes “bad stuff” is what’s needed to make us realize what we actually have in life.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to avoid car accidents and calls to the insurance company and visits to the hospital, yet lucky enough to have the opportunity to be thankful for our lives just the same.

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