Last night I watched the sun set for the first time in 2014 as my plane made its final approach to LaGuardia. We landed, I got my bag and headed to the taxi line, where I found, mercifully, far more cars than people and no wait whatsoever. The driver even seemed to understand where I wanted to go and how to get there.
Then, in the airport exit lane, the car stalled. The driver immediately restarted the engine, and soon we were pulling onto the highway, but it was clear that all was not well under the hood. There was a gentle rocking sensation, like riding with a grandmother who keeps her food hovering against the brake pedal, and I started to picture myself stranded on the side of the BQE, so cold without my hat and mittens that even the glittering skyline across the East River would offer no comfort.
“Just my luck,” I imagined myself saying while recounting what was about to become a harrowing travel ordeal. Then I gave myself a mental slap in the face. I hate the phrase “just my luck.” I think it is stupid, illogical, inaccurate and, most of all, unhealthy. The thing is, we never say “just my luck” when things go well. When my plane landed safely and ahead of schedule, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When my bag arrived quickly and undamaged, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When there was no line for a taxi, I didn’t say, “just my luck.”
I have long referred to my outlook on life as logical optimism. I believe that, most of the time, it is only logical to believe that things are good and disasters will be avoided. Jeff is often annoyed by my Spock-meets-Pollyana worldview. When Jeff tells the story of the three wrecks he had in his Ford Ranger, it is the tale a little truck that was plagued by misfortune. The first time he told me the story I said, “You are so lucky – I can’t believe you had three wrecks and emerged without a scratch!” Even the truck was okay, although Jeff did spend all of his savings on repairs.
I have long believed that the stories we tell about our own lives, in our heads and to other people, shape not just the perception but the actual direction of our days. According to this story from NPR, there is research to back me up. The general gist of it is that when we tell ourselves that our sorrows and misfortunes are overwhelming or unique to our individual experience (“I’m never going to make friends” or “I’m the only person here without friends”) we have a hard time overcoming them, but when we reframe the narrative (“Everyone has trouble making friends at first”) we not only feel better in the short term, we also achieve more and see concrete returns. But really, you should listen to the story – it involves the phrase, “I pooped on Frankenstein.”
Telling stories is a defining part of the human experience. How often have you started crafting a story (or Facebook status) before an event took place? Our desire to have something to tell can lead to a lot of whining. On-time arrivals, wine bottles that don’t break in transit and cab rides that are short and fairly priced don’t make good stories because they are such common occurrences. Most of the time, things do work out. But when disaster strikes, why do we frame ourselves as victims instead of heroes? I’m not a Greek scholar, but I don’t think, “just my luck” is how Odysseus described his 10-year journey home from Troy.
I contemplated all of this during what turned out to be a short and uneventful ride home, and when the car finally lurched up to the curb outside my apartment , I said to myself, “just my luck.”