The benefit of expecting the worst
March 24, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
In any given situation, I presume that catastrophe will befall me. It has, many times. But I’m still alive and still aspiring. One of the benefits of always expecting the worst is that you can never be destroyed by what happens to you. My imagination tops reality, time and again. I’ll give you an example later. But first, watch how tourists reacted when the terrorists began shooting in the Bardo National Museum, March 18, 2015.
They simply would not stop talking. If I’d been there, I would’ve walked up and down the stairs, slapping faces until everyone was silent.
On December 28, 1995, a man tried to murder me at the bookstore where I worked. He popped out of the darkness and pointed a giant semiautomatic pistol in my face. I did this painting of him as an act of banishment, to quote Otto Dix.
When the gun was shoved into my face, I lost my mind and ran. But in the middle of the chaos inside my head, I saw a movie of my brother Tim being shot. The gunman shot him exactly eight times in rapid succession, and Tim’s body jerked when each bullet hit him. For some reason he didn’t fall. Twenty years later, I can still see that movie as clearly as though it played ten seconds ago.
Even though I’ve always been overweight, I can run incredibly fast. My coach in the Netherlands was mystified. He told me that my fatness must’ve allowed me to build up tremendous inertia, like a bowling ball. Actually it’s just genetics. My father was one of the most physically powerful men who ever lived.
In 1977 I watched him run a full city block in under ten seconds. He was fifty years old, smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, drank a bottle of scotch a day, and hadn’t exercised in three decades. The family was at a bus stop in Edinburgh, Scotland, and my father had gone down the street to buy some smokes. The bus came, and he loped back to us with horrifying speed. His legs were so long that he took only about a dozen steps to travel an entire city block. He seemed to be defying gravity.
That night in 1995, I took off like my father. Then I saw the movie of Tim being shot. I turned around and ran back, fully aware that I was returning to my death. It made me very angry at my brother, since I’d tried to warn him about the car parked there, and he’d snapped at me, “Well, don’t worry about it!” When under stress, he gets very rude. Still, I couldn’t leave him to die alone. The dark, wide-open street and my freakish speed had saved me. I’d outrun the killer. It was infuriating that now I’d have to die because my brother hadn’t listened to me.
As I ran around the rear of the truck we were unloading, Tim came sailing through the air, in mid-leap over a box of books. The top of his head smashed into my face, breaking my nose and glasses. That was the third time my nose was broken. Blind and bleeding, I sprinted after Tim into the bookstore.
We survived—I’m pretty sure—because the gunman had armed himself with a pistol famous for jamming.
The gunman was a store regular. He claimed to have been in the US Army Special Forces, but when I asked him his MOS number, he had no idea what I meant. Nor did he know what an ODA was. A ridiculous poseur, he tried to live out a fantasy on the night of December 28, 1995. The plan was for him to murder Tim and me, and then our boss would make an extravagant insurance claim on the truckload of rotted antique books.
Since he’s now dead, and since he tried to murder my brother and me, I can admit that I stole a book that night after the cops left. I took it because it once belonged to the writer Anita Loos.
Here’s my favorite photo of her.
Boy oh boy. All my shortcomings in one image. But I digress.
So despite knowing that I’d be murdered, I ran back to my brother. At that time I was terrified of death, not having yet become a theist. I thought death was the end of everything. Contemplating nonexistence nearly drove me out of my mind because it always made me think about what it meant to exist. What was consciousness? How did I really know I was conscious? Was it all a dream? Would it end at any second?
The worst part was that I’d go into a ruminative loop about what life was. What is that animating force? How is it possible? Is it chemical? Electric? A figment of someone’s imagination? I’d end up paralyzed, too self-conscious to do anything.
“There! I just thought something! What does that mean, ‘thinking’? There! I just moved my foot! How is it that it’s my foot? Who am I? What am I? Why am I? Where am I? What’s going on here? How can I be me, separate from everything else? What’s me-ness?”
I don’t spend even a second of time on that kind of stuff anymore. Gradually I learned to accept that my existence here is the Allegory of the Cave.
Plato has Socrates describe a gathering of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to assign names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality.
Reality is something I can’t even begin to comprehend, so I don’t worry about it. This freed me from my imagination.
My greatest fear was that my elderly parents, Tim, and I would be in some kind of cataclysm, and we’d have to decide who survived. My parents would insist that Tim and I run for it, but neither of us would want to leave them behind. All the choices available to us would be rotten, and I’d hate them.
By the time my parents died, I’d long since made up my mind that if we ever faced such a situation, we’d all go out together, and I’d be at peace with it. I wouldn’t resent my parents for refusing to take care of themselves and becoming so feeble that they couldn’t escape. My serenity was the direct result of always expecting something horrible to happen. That sounds counterintuitive, but it made me unshockable and unafraid. If you and I were in a museum that was being shot up by terrorists, I’d keep my head. The attack wouldn’t surprise me. If there were a chance for us to survive, I’d find it.
Just stop talking if we’re trying to hide, okay? Though I understand that people jabber incontinently when they’re afraid, I will slap you as hard as I can if you don’t shut up.
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