May 1st, 2013

A funny thing happened on the way …

Funny things can happen on the way to anywhere and if your life is anything like mine, it’s important not to miss them when they do. It is raining hard in the morning on my way to the hospital, one of those heavy downpours where the sheer volume of water would obscure visibility even without the low clouds that seem to have come down like a curtain over the road ahead. I can just make out the red light at the next intersection or maybe I only know it’s there because I have driven this road so often.

A small service truck has stopped in front of me and I am curious about what is written on the tailgate. I really just want to know how close I have to get in order to see anything at all through the rain. I decelerate slowly and press down hard on the brake at the exact moment a shimmering word snaps into focus – Irrigation. Yes! It is only eight in the morning and already the universe has given me a gift.

New England weather being what it is, the next week finds me on the same road going nowhere in a snowstorm. With traffic at a standstill, I leave that well-traveled and familiar route on a back road to the superhighway. Who would have guessed that the superhighway wasn’t plowed? Even so, I make my way westward until I catch a glimpse of my exit sign through near whiteout conditions and scoot over in the lowest possible gear. Not low enough. Oh, what a slide across that vast expanse of winter white into the soft cushion of a forgiving snow bank! Soft enough not to leave any marks and to allow for a deft reverse maneuver and insertion onto the toboggan run of an exit ramp. Back on the surface roads, I am cut off by a pickup truck, stuck behind an immobilized snowplow, blocked in my way up the back side of hospital hill by the carcass of an unlucky car, but still undeterred and grinding ever onward.

Then, within sight of the soul-stirring architecture of the hospital, crowning the summit of its lofty, snow-covered prominence, my car gives an engine-straining, wheel-spinning protest and starts the dreaded backward slide into the abyss. A quick turn of wheel slips me into the lot of a neighboring biotech company where I secure an illegal parking space after several more minutes of spinning and sliding and then set off on foot for the summit. At the end of the day, I do not have a ticket, my car has not been towed, the snow stops, the lot and the road are plowed and traffic moves freely on the way home. This time I had to work for my gifts from the universe but even so they were there, at least two of them – the gifts of adventure and safety. If any of this can be considered funny, it is perhaps an occasion of gallows humor, prompting the storyteller’s equivalent of nervous laughter at disaster averted. Or maybe I just like a safe enough challenge.

Funny things happen on the way home from work as well, though again, this one struck me as funny only after it was over. While waiting at a traffic light to turn onto the road home, I hear a few loud blasts from the horn of the pickup truck behind me. A quick check of the road ahead tells me that I have not suffered a mental lapse and forgotten to move forward when the light changed. It is still red and we are all still waiting. In the rearview mirror, I see what I expect to be an irate driver but he looks more concerned than angry, leaning out of his open window and gesturing to get my attention. He is shouting now, so I roll down my own window to hear what he has to say. “Yo, your tail light’s busted.” I thank him for the helpful information and, light green, follow the traffic onto the main road.

As a psychologist I know something about the relationship between thoughts and feelings and the next mile finds me at first relieved, then grateful, annoyed and unfazed in quick succession. I am relieved that the driver behind me wasn’t shouting because I was blocking him from getting somewhere important in a hurry, like away from the police in hot pursuit with guns blazing. Gratitude sets in when I realize that were it not for his warning, I would have never known that I had to get my tail light fixed. But how could it be “busted?”

Surely I would have noticed the cracked or missing glass when I got into the car. Yet he did say, “busted” and now I am annoyed that I have to make time in my busy schedule to get it replaced before the police start pursuing me. Then it occurs to me that I am being too literal, too much like a psychologist who has just spent the last eight hours writing risk assessments that require exactly the right words to describe events as precisely as if I were writing a manual for defusing bombs. When my Good Samaritan said that my taillight was “busted,” he was just letting me know that it wasn’t working probably because the bulb had burned out. A dead bulb, now that’s an easy fix but I still pulled into the next parking lot to check, just to be sure.

Funny things happen all the time and it is good to laugh, especially when the joke is on us.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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