A single day can change your life. Or even a single word.
Yesterday may not have been a life-changing day for me, but it definitely struck a chord. I was reclining on the sofa and settling into an old rerun of South Park when from the other room, my roommate issued a pronounced and anguished “Fuck!”
Now, if you’re an experienced connoisseur of profanity like me, you know that fucks come in a variety of flavors. The most common “fuck,” the casual expletive, develops in the human vocabulary as early as sixth or seventh grade. It’s the cool fuck, the nonchalant fuck, the say-it-for-the-fuck-of-it fuck you throw around when your shoelaces come untied, or you drop a penny on the ground and have to bend down to pick it up. In short, it’s not that significant at all.
Then you have your ING-intensifiers (fucking lame, fucking cool, fucking baked), your salacious verbs (fuck me, fuck you, fuck that) and your common noun abstractions (Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a fuck). These variations usually bear greater import than the grade-school expletive, ranging in reaction from spilled cups of coffee to totaled cars.
My roommate’s four-lettered furor was on another level entirely. Never in all the hundreds of pages of Shakespeare and Milton that the literature major bestows have I heard such a sincere monosyllabic expression of grievance. The second the shameful oath left his lips, I knew we were in for trouble.
I chucked my laptop and ran to see what the matter was. Was it a dead parent? A broken leg? An infestation of rodents under his bed? Arriving in the doorway, I was confused to find my buddy hunched over his desk with his back to the door, scribbling homework as if nothing had happened at all.
“Hey dude,” I said, frowning, “everything cool?”
At first he seemed confused. Then, comprehension dawning on his face, he muttered, “Yeah. Stubbed my toe is all,” and went back to working. Though this explanation hardly accounted for the vehemence of his outcry, I let it go. I could tell he was lying, but I’ve never been one to pry.
Sure enough, a few hours later he came to me with a confession. He hadn’t really stubbed his toe. He’d been dozing off over a particularly daunting math problem and, as we tend to do while dozing, indulging in self-reflection. In his musings he had come across a particularly bitter moment in his past, and it was this memory of failure, embarrassment and shame dredged up and presented to him brand-spanking new that forced the word out with such tremendous force, almost of its own volition.
My roommate has been stubbing his toe for years.
The funny thing is, so have I. I sling curses like Kershaw slings curveballs, especially when I’m lost in thought. Give me a shovel and ten minutes of spare time, and I guarantee you I’ll dig up some bones.
Of course, this similarity could be owed to the fact that we’ve been friends for over ten years. We grew up together, went to the same high school together and now attend the same college. The longevity of our friendship certainly suggests some common personality traits. It could be that we are both more prone to self-reflection (and at times, self-loathing) than most other people.
But I don’t think it’s that contained. I think there’s a good chance that you or someone you know has done the same thing. We’re all humans, and we all make mistakes. What’s more, we all reflect and brood over them. Until my roommate made his confession yesterday, I sincerely thought — insanely, impossibly — that I was the only person on planet Earth so tied up in my own imperfections.
The truth is that I’m not alone and neither are you. I still remember being mystified during my first few years of driving by a phenomenon I could only describe as “shy drivers”: people who, when pulling up at a red light next to you, stop about six feet short of the limit line, so that their passenger’s side window is even with your back tires. I observed this about a dozen times without explanation until one day, driving home and tearing up over something tragic, I did the exact same thing to avoid being seen crying.
These moments of revelation are few and far between, but I believe they are some of the most important things we can experience in life. They remind us that we are all connected not by our blessings and our triumphs, but by our shortcomings and our failures. We each have an Achilles’ heel, and we share in the profound and universal experience of suffering it brings us.
So, the next time you see someone swearing, yelling or pulling their hair in public for no apparent reason, don’t write it off as crazy. They’re not hearing voices, seeing demons or speaking directly to God. They’re not suffering from any strange or rare form of psychosis. The truth is less complicated, and far less dramatic:
They’re miserable. Just like you.
Mark Strong can usually be found sobbing in his car, blasting Enya and stopping short at traffic lights.
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