Sometimes shit happens.
And no matter how badly it hurts, no matter how badly you try to change things, no matter anything — bad shit still happens.
I’m sorry. It sucks.
And I am not going to try to give you any answers. I’m not confident there even are answers. The best I can do is to share my evolving perspective and hope that it helps you as you go through your own trial by fire.
When shit gets really bad we come face to face with our own mortality. Not everyone has a moment where they know they are going to die, but for those that do I wonder if it comes as a surprise. I can only speculate. There are moments where I thought I might, and those moments were a bit of a surprise, as if everything else in my life had been like a novel I could read and put down, as if I was some exception. Like it couldn’t really happen to me. But that’s wrong — badly wrong. I’m part of it, and at some point, my story will end. And in that moment my false assumption of “except me” will clearly become:
“Oh … and me.”
When trying to understand bad shit — what it means, if I’ll get through it — I have some thoughts, and the stories that glue those thoughts together revolve around the idea of fossils.
“Fossils?” Just let it go — it’s how my mind works. Roll with it. I warned you this was my evolving perspective…
There used to be so many other humans walking this earth. Neanderthals, Denisovans, Erectus … and likely so many more that have been forever lost — nothing left to save their memory.
It reminds me of how I felt once when I visited the Met. Do you ever feel like you are walking alone in a cemetery? Like you arrived to an event too late, and now only monuments stand where people used to be?
I wonder what it was like when the last of them passed. The last Neanderthal. That last Denisovan. No more of their families left. Those last ones that walked alone in the cemetery.
Were they praying? Were they sick? Were they kneeling at the end of a spear?
In that last moment were they surprised?
“Oh … and me.”
We Sapiens stand alone, our brothers and sisters gone. We are the last living twig on an otherwise dead branch. Why did they die? And do their same flaws reside in us? Are we special to have survived, or is the same inevitability that came for them just slightly delayed for us?
Are we all fatefully human?
I wonder about that, and I think it matters to look hard truths in the eye. To face them.
And when we read the stories preserved in stone, we find their fossils, we find what was left behind but is no more. We find their bones. Their instruments. Their tools. Their religious sites. Their stories — our story — the human story — has a heaviness to it. Do you feel that? It’s humbling and sometimes unnerving.
They were something, and now they are no more.
That’s probably not very encouraging, but the sobriety it provides is critical. We are not alone in experiencing pain, and some people get dealt the actual apocalypse.
Bad shit happens.
To all of us.
This stark truth helps me not to spend energy pretending that bad shit doesn’t happen, or wasn’t supposed to happen, or any other iteration of denial. Often the first most helpful thing I’ve done in facing shit is to accept it. By no means resigning myself to it, but acknowledging it.
Sometimes bad shit happens.
“Oh … and me.”
The Fossils Within
There’s another piece to my perspective. This story is not read from the fossils we find among stones but instead the fossils found in our DNA.
Have you ever heard of endogenous retroviruses? These are unique little bastards that in addition to infecting host DNA with their own, have an interesting and sometimes consequential side effect. If the host survives them, the DNA of the virus remains, and stays in the germ line so that any future children inherit the virus’s DNA as well. Their code keeps getting passed down generation after generation. Fossil viruses in our own genome.
I’m tempted to write something like “we carry the scars of our ancestors” or something like that — but that’s not right. These aren’t scars. This is the actual DNA of the virus. The real thing. Dormant, maybe mutated, but still there.
While researchers are increasingly realizing it is a misnomer — “junk DNA” hosts a lot of these mutated and once-supposed-dormant remains of ancient endogenous retroviruses. Recent estimates propose that 5–8% of our entire genome is made up of these fossil viruses.
That’s interesting, but here is the part that is most compelling to me. Those fossil viruses are new genes, genes that have turned out to be very impactful to our own evolution. Some have been discovered to have a bad effect, but I want to focus on the wonder of the ones that change us for the better. For example, the placenta — necessary to provide oxygen and nutrients to a developing fetus, keeping the blood of the mother and child separate, and removing waste — was enabled by the genes from one of these viruses. Had there been no virus, there would be no placenta. The more research is done, the more we find that some of the most significant leaps in evolution have genes from these viruses as a catalyst. Additionally, in our day to day lives the “junk DNA” turns out to play critical roles in regulating other genes.
How powerful is that?
After surviving something we saw as so horrible and deadly — we are left with a new potential. We didn’t just survive the infection, we subdued it. Some authors sensationalize their articles by claiming “we are part virus!” I don’t see it like that. A virus is so deadly because it keeps reproducing itself, turning its host into itself until there is not enough left of the host to survive. This is the opposite. We subjugated the virus and made it part of ourselves. We humanized it, and could have never become what we are today without it.
Reminds me of what Tennessee Williams said. “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”
It’s empowering to realize the rebirth aspect of this too. What we were before, is not what we are after. We are literally the children of our circumstances. We don’t just survive or pass through something untouched, instead we walk away carrying the genes of our adversity. I get chills thinking about that moment a demon comes for us again, and when we meet his eyes he sees his own power now residing in us.
“Oh … and me.”
We were something, and now we are more.
While anecdotal, I think about how so many psychologists enter their field because of their own experiences with mental health. Doctors enter their field because of the pain and loss disease caused in their families and communities.
I like this perspective, because it puts otherwise overwhelming things in context. Anxiety. Depression. Grief. And whatever host of other painful things that can infect our soul and darken our minds. I find it so easy to think of these things in terms of me being broken or damaged or scar-stricken. But we survive them. And then we are more — not because we are rid of them, but because they are part of us, and we own them, and use them to develop new ways of being we could never have otherwise been. We are not defined by the bad shit that happens.
I love how Jean-Paul Sartre puts it: “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
Sometimes bad shit happens…