Sometimes I sell things on Craigslist because I either want to earn some extra money or I just need to get rid of stuff and am selfishly curious as to whether or not I can turn a profit. I sold some barstools recently because I realized I don’t actually have a bar in my apartment. Within a couple of days I had an interested buyer for the useless stools, and she came by my place to pick them up.
In the course of our brief interaction (no more than five minutes), she told me she had moved from a house to an apartment and needed smaller furniture. I asked her if she’d moved from out of state, and she said it was just from a neighboring city. I then asked why the downsizing in living space, and she said she’d just been through a divorce. I told her I was sorry as a way of trying to console her and simultaneously put a stopper on any discomfort the conversation might give her, but she kept going by adding that her husband had run off with a twenty-five-year-old girl. This woman was probably in her late thirties or early forties, so I’m assuming her husband was around the same age. There was so much pain expressed in her voice and face at the prospect of having to live with being deemed second rate by her former husband, a man she told me she had been with since the fifth grade.
And it’s at times like these when I have no words. I think all I did was stand there and shake my head and mutter, “Oh my God.”
Because what can you say to that? Tell her what a jerk her ex-husband was? She knows that already. Tell her (again) how sorry I am? What does that mean to her? I’m just the guy taking her twenty bucks in exchange for two barstools.
I’ll probably never see this woman again, so does it matter? I can’t say. It’s just amazing how much hurt there is in our environment, how much baggage everyone is carrying around. With that in mind, it’s rather phenomenal, really, that we’re able to get anything done and keep a mostly civilized society clicking along. You’d think it would’ve all fallen apart by now.
This is why the stories I write for my own projects can’t always be cheery—these interactions like this. They remind us we live in a world dripping in pain. Some days are great, some days are not. But to live is to suffer, so it doesn’t make sense to only write stories tinged in cheer. There is a time for everything.
Usually in retrospect I have a better idea of what I should have said in a situation, but I still have no words I can think of that I would’ve said to this woman. I think stories are like that, too. Often they won’t be neatly wrapped up with a bow of a resounding conclusion on top that ties up all those errant ends. Sometimes the ending just sort of spans out into the mist, clothed in fog. Such words as “resolution” or “restoration” may be a long ways off, a point in time farther away than the simple final chapter of a novel or last paragraph of a short story.
I think it’s okay I didn’t know what to tell this woman. Maybe all you can do is show a person you’re aware of their pain and express your wish to take it away from them and put it on yourself instead. I don’t know. Something like that. In a way, I think that’s what literature can do. Reading is cathartic and also a way to share experiences, a means towards the end of filling someone else’s shoes and seeing the way in which the world reverberates in his or her eyes. Does that fix everything? No. But it helps.
Sometimes good overcomes evil, but not always right away. That’s what most of us know. Most of us aren’t akin to the swelling orchestra behind the Death Star in our life exploding. John Williams may write great music, but rarely would it ever be a good soundtrack for our everyday lives. And that’s okay. Because hopefully we’ll still have books years and years from now to remind us there are people out there who know what we’re going through, even if the guy selling us barstools can’t articulate such empathy.