What are the chances?

Nobody plans for their marriage to end in divorce. I certainly didn’t.  No sirree. I was sure that it would last forever. I was in for the long haul. I just didn’t foresee the forces and events that would change my life, transforming me into someone quite different than the one who said “I do” that day.

When they were little our children occasionally would ask, “Are you and dad ever going to get a divorce?” My answer — which I emphatically believed then — was always the same, delivered with a reassuring smile and a warm hug.  “No. Never. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Fast forward a few years.  It’s 2008 and I am 36.  “Life begins at thirty-six!” my father once said.  He was right, in a way.  Quite a lot had to happen before I could see the wisdom and hope in that statement, however.  What I didn’t know then: my life had to crumble first, and it would be up to me to rebuild a new life out of the rubble. Thirty-six was the beginning of the end for me.

Fast forward a few more years to the present day.  Nearly all the major building blocks of my life — my living situation, my career, my vocation, my future plans and aspirations — have changed.  If you had told me five years ago what my life would be like today, I would have laughed and said, “No way.”  Such an outcome seemed like a near impossibility; about as likely as a meteorite landing on my head.

By now I should know better than to laugh off things I thought would never happen to me.

Back when I was teaching health to 10th graders, I’d remind them that statistics can be useful in evaluating risks, making decisions, and determining which things they should worry about at their age (drunk driving accidents, which kill over 7,000 teens each year) and which ones not to worry so much about (odds of being struck by lightning: 1 in 5,500,000).

The thing to remember about statistics like that last one is, there are a lot of high impact/low probability events that you shouldn’t spend time worrying about because the chances of them happening to you are miniscule. Is it likely that you will be that 1 in 5,500,000? No. But you know what else? Somebody’s going to be that one. And if that somebody is you, that event is likely to change your life significantly.

There are at least two lessons one can draw from this. They seem contradictory at first glance, but both are true:

1) There are exceptions to every rule, so please, do not resign yourself to a particular fate. Be curious, question popular wisdom, believe that you can overcome even the toughest obstacles and the longest odds.  Don’t take anything for granted.

2) The rules of life generally will apply to you, too. There are some risks you don’t need to take and shouldn’t take. You are not likely to be the exception to the rule. You are not immortal. Don’t take anything for granted.

The first part of the message is the easy sell: yes, sometimes you have to look beyond the field of obvious possibilities and shake things up.

But the second part is tougher to accept, especially for kids who can’t yet imagine that someday they might face the fates of the adults in their lives. You may not believe it now, kids, but the scary stuff that happens to other people can happen to you, too.

When you’re young and feel invincible, it’s easy to believe you won’t be the one: the 1 in 6 Americans who will die from heart disease, the 1 in 7 who will die of cancer, the 1 in 300 who will die in a car accident.

Even as adults, we think we will beat the odds.  Even after I became a statistic myself — a one in a 1 in 23 million chance – I still believed I’d be the one on the favorable side of much more common fates.

There are many things I never thought would happen to me. Half of marriages end in divorce. That’s one in every two. Even after I was one in twenty-three million, I still believed I’d beat the odds and not be that one in two.

Nobody plans for their marriage to end in divorce. I certainly didn’t.

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One thought on “What are the chances?”

  1. “Do you believe people are doing the best they can?” asks Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. Her spouses replies, “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”

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