If we all know that “shit happens,” why do we still get so upset when shit actually happens? If adversity is an unavoidable part of life, and if this knowledge is commonplace, why does this knowledge provide such cold comfort when adversity strikes?

Perhaps the weakness of “shit happens” as a source of consolation is that we often feel — and we can often explain why — we should have been spared the shit: “Yes, shit happens — I totally accept that shit happens as a general principle — but this particular shit should not be happening to me, of all people, at this particular time.”

Say we’ve gotten a flat tire and we’re upset. We could seek comfort in the idea that “shit happens” — people get flats all the time, and every tire, driven long enough, will someday go flat — so the whole situation is normal. It’s just one of those many unfortunate occurrences in life that are outside our control. No reason to get worked up about it, right? But if our tire is brand new — if we just replaced it last week — and if we hadn’t driven it much this morning, and if we’re in danger of being late to a friend’s wedding which is starting in an hour, then we might not care that flat tires are common and every driver experiences them: our new tire shouldn’t have gone flat right now. This particular shit should not be happening to us at this particular time. It didn’t have to happen. We didn’t deserve it. This is not the kind of shit we signed up for. Send it back.

Yes, there is much comforting potential in the phrase “shit happens” – it can help us accept whatever comes our way, it can remind us that bad events are a natural part of life and that when they happen to us, we’re not alone, and we’re not being singled out; rather, we’re part of a population of billions of humans that are all subject to shit happening all the time. But the comforting potential of “shit happens” is lost when we decide that we should have been granted a special exemption from any shit happening in our particular case. If we believe shit really wasn’t supposed to happen to us, then the fact that shit did happen will strike us unfair, outrageous, intolerable. So, in order for the phrase “shit happens” to have any value as a comforting principle, we have to interpret it universally — we have to remember that shit can happen to anyone, including us, at any time, no matter how much we don’t want it to happen, no matter how much we don’t deserve it, and no matter how much we’ve worked to prevent it. When we abandon this universal interpretation, thinking that “shit happens, but we should be excused,” we’re setting ourselves up to feel angry and cheated when our excuse isn’t honored.

Personal exceptionalism regarding the principle that “shit happens” might seem immature, selfish, or delusional. Why should any individual be granted an exemption from the widespread phenomenon of shit happening all the time, to all people, everywhere? In fact, there might be a good reason why a person expects to be exempt from shit happening. That’s because we’re often told, and we often try to tell ourselves, “Relax, don’t worry, everything’s gonna be fine, shit’s not gonna happen, and even if it does happen, it won’t be that bad.”

If we had been losing sleep the night before our friend’s wedding, worrying that we might get a flat tire on the way and miss the vows, what advice would our spouse have given us then? What advice would we have given ourselves? “Calm down. Don’t expect the worst. The tires are new, the car is in good shape. We’ll get there on time, and all will be well. Now get some rest.” That’s good advice, right, even if there’s a scenario in which it turns out to be inaccurate?

As a practical rule, we have to live our lives by the expectation that things will basically go as planned — that shit’s not gonna happen. When we jump into bed, we have to assume the bed’s not going to collapse (even though any piece of furniture can have structural weaknesses that get worse over time). We have to assume the ceiling’s not going to fall on us while we’re sleeping (even though there can be undetected leaks in attics that cause ceilings to suddenly buckle and fall). We have to assume the sun is going to rise in the morning (even though astrophysicists would have to concede that they don’t know about every phenomenon that could possibly occur in the universe). We have to trust that our car will start, that the highway won’t be blocked, that our vision won’t suddenly fail, that the steering wheel won’t suddenly stop controlling the direction of the car. We have to expect that the patterns in our life that we’ve come to rely on — the pattern of night and day, the pattern of waking up in the morning and remembering who we are, the pattern of using words and having them convey the meanings they’re supposed to convey, the pattern of tools and appliances and machines doing what they’re built for — we have to assume these patterns won’t randomly go haywire.

If we truly expected that any assumption could fail and any pattern could go berserk at any moment, there would be no end to our stress. How would we function with such an outlook? If we didn’t trust the global banking system, so we exchanged our dollars for gold, and then we built a safe for our gold, and then we hired a guard because we didn’t trust the safe, and we then hired a second guard to watch the first guard because we didn’t trust the first one — then after building our expensive safe and paying the guards’ salaries for a while, perhaps the safe would be empty: we would have used up all the gold.

When we’re overcome by the nuisance of anxiety, that’s because we’re expecting everything to go wrong. We’re expecting familiar patterns to suddenly go bonkers. We’re taking the idea that “shit happens” and we’re saying “yes, shit happens, in fact, shit is going to happen to me, I know it.” But we know this expectation is counterproductive. When anxiety is extreme enough, we even call it a disorder and we treat it with medication and therapy. We know we shouldn’t let worry and foreboding overwhelm us. We know it’s better to stay calm and to trust that things will probably work out fine. We know it’s better to cultivate positive expectations than to assume catastrophe. We know it’s better to be confident and optimistic than to be crippled by fear. So we try to make ourselves believe that shit’s not gonna happen, and that if it does happen, it won’t be so bad.

Indeed, there’s a contradiction between two worldviews that we’re routinely advised to adopt. When we’re looking towards an event that we’ve made a reasonable effort to prepare for, we’re supposed to relax and expect that shit’s not gonna happen. But after the event, if shit happened, we’re supposed to find comfort in remembering that “shit happens,” duh, it’s just a part of life. So which one is it? We can be forgiven for experiencing a bit of whiplash as we try to keep calm and maintain our faith in the endurance of familiar patterns (the “shit’s not gonna happen” worldview) but also remember that any pattern can break when we least expect it (the “shit happens” worldview).

Life threw me an opportunity to explore the philosophical and emotional nuances of “shit happens” just last week. Friday morning, I had left home with enough time to get to a 9AM appointment at the dentist’s office across town, but there was a surprise waiting at my local subway station: the entrance was locked. I tried one door after the other — maybe I wasn’t pulling hard enough? Turned out, all service was suspended due to a “signal issue” (because signals sometimes have issues, I guess) and I’d have to take a bus instead.

In ten years of using this particular subway station, I had never found it to be shut down at rush hour without warning. Sure, trains had been massively delayed and terribly overcrowded, but the station had never been sealed off and inaccessible on a busy weekday morning. The familiar ten-year pattern of my walking to the station and being able to catch a train was now going haywire. Why did this have to happen on the one morning when I urgently needed to get across town? “Well, shit happens,” I told myself, “No big deal.” I found the bus and got on, knowing it would be slower, but believing I still had plenty of time.

Then more shit happened. My bus got stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, inside a tunnel, surrounded by a dozen other buses at the peak of rush hour. Each passing moment, as the bus kept idling, I imagined where I should have been by then, if this had been any other morning and the subway had been usable. Around 8:30AM I should have been changing trains. Around 8:40 I should have been arriving at my destination stop. Around 8:45 I should have been walking from the stop to the dentist’s office. But now it was 8:50 and I was still stuck on the bus. And the bus wasn’t moving. As the minutes dragged on and my risk of missing the appointment grew higher and higher, my calm and acceptance gave way to distress. “Shit happens” wasn’t helping me anymore, because this wasn’t the shit I had signed up for.

If I missed the appointment, I’d be slapped with a $95 cancellation fee. I’d have wasted all the time I had taken off work to travel across town: it would all have been “for nothing.” Ditto with the effort I had spent scheduling this appointment months ago, keeping it on my calendar, and reminding myself of it as the day grew closer. I’d lose the satisfying feeling of being done with the appointment; instead, it would linger as an unresolved task and I’d have to spend more time in rescheduling it, preparing for it again, and making a second trip. So I stood to lose money, time, and satisfaction: “Shit happens, but I can’t afford for it to happen to me right now — it’s too expensive.”

If I missed the appointment, I’d also feel that I had screwed up. Most of the blame would fall on the subway system itself, but I’d be forced to consider my own complicity in the bad outcome: maybe I should have left home earlier, just in case? Maybe I should have checked for news alerts about the subway before assuming I’d be able to ride it this morning? In fact, I had begun my morning with positivity, good cheer, and absolute confidence that I’d get to the appointment on time. I showered and brushed my teeth without feeling worried in the slightest. I got dressed and walked out the door, carrying the rock-sold assumption that “shit’s not gonna happen,” and that in a few hours, I’d be done with the appointment. But now, I’d have to grapple with the fact that I had been so deluded, so gullible to believe in a favorable outcome that would not come pass. How could I have been so confident but so wrong? Just because the stupid subway had decided to break down today — the worst day it could have chosen to do that — I’d be forced to confront my own fallibility. Why couldn’t the subway have functioned properly today and waited to break until the next day, sparing me all the self-doubt? “Shit happens, but I can’t face the fact that I allowed it to happen — that I didn’t foresee it and didn’t prevent it.”

But this inner turmoil was only what I feared I’d experience if I missed the appointment. I hadn’t missed it yet. As I waited for the bus to move, I didn’t yet know what would happen. Every time I’d feel the vibrations of the engine revving up, every time I’d sense a little bit of forward motion, I’d think “Yes! I can still make it.” I’d feel weight of my future losses and self-doubt lifting. Then when the bus stopped again, jolting me forward in my seat, I’d think, “No! There’s no hope. It’s all over.” Thud. The situation was constantly changing from stalled to moving, stalled to moving, stalled to moving, keeping me on an emotional roller coaster, where I’d get my hopes up, then see them dashed, again and again. The other passengers were growing increasingly fidgety, just as I was, as though we’d all been choreographed to take out our phones and start making apologetic calls at the same time. The best thing, of course, would have been for the traffic to clear up. But the second best thing would have been for the bus engine to break down so I’d have the clarity of knowing that I was going to miss the appointment and there was nothing I could do about it. Neither of those things happened — it was just stop and start, stop and start, for minutes on end. The uncertainty intensified my stress by holding my attention captive, preventing me from tuning out. “Shit happens, but I can’t accept not knowing what shit will happen next.”

If this situation was becoming increasingly stressful and difficult to bear, of course it didn’t have to be. In the bigger picture of my life, this was a tiny little blip. Regarding the cost of missing the appointment, I knew I’d be able to pay the $95 cancellation fee, annoying as it was, without undue hardship, and I knew I wasn’t so busy that a few “wasted” hours would disrupt any of my long-term goals. Regarding the self-doubt, I knew I had basically done my best and that the outcome was now out of my control. I understood that going overboard with preparation (like waking up at 4AM and making all kinds of backup plans in case of a subway failure) might have helped me, by chance, in this one instance, but it wouldn’t have represented a good strategy for living. And regarding the uncertainty of the situation, well, I knew I’d have clarity soon enough, within the next half-hour, and that all I had to do was wait.

So if I already possessed the insight and perspective to manifest calm in this situation, why couldn’t I do that? If I knew that shit happens, that I could easily handle any loss I’d incur, that I’d already done my best, and that this too would pass, why was I still so frustrated and edgy? It came down to the basic distinction between acceptance and non-acceptance. Although I accepted that “shit happens,” I didn’t want to accept that this particular shit was happening to me at this particular time. I didn’t want to accept this shit even though I knew I could handle it. Earlier in morning, I had placed my faith in the idea that “shit’s not gonna happen,” and I was still clinging to that idea. But the ghost of my former optimism was haunting me now. It was making me feel that this current shit was wrong and that it shouldn’t be happening, even though I knew I could handle it. All this led me to hold my breath.

Holding one’s breath is a physical manifestation of non-acceptance. When we breathe freely, calmly, and with awareness, we’re opening ourselves up to sensation. Tuning into our breathing is a first, primary step in acknowledging how our whole body feels, including feelings that are unpleasant — like queasiness, soreness, tightness, bloatedness or hunger, excess heat or cold, goosebumps, and pins and needles. When we open the door to awareness, we may gain an awareness of pain. When we hold our breath, we’re trying to block out the pain. We’re engaging in a defensive reaction where we seek to close ourselves off to sensation — and everything sensation implies — and instead find safety in an inner cocoon. Paradoxically, this choice makes everything harder because holding one’s breath is uncomfortable and it deprives us of air. But even knowing this, I kept holding my breath. I felt like tuning into my breathing right now — in this situation — would have been superfluous, frivolous, inappropriate. Even though I was stuck on a bus with no way of changing the situation, I felt like I “didn’t have time” for calm breathing. I was still caught up in non-acceptance.

To move from non-acceptance to acceptance, it’s helpful to remember that we always have to breathe, no matter what. Regardless of how stressful or overwhelming or complex or frustrating a situation becomes, none of that changes the primacy of respiration as a basic physical need. If we have to breathe, no matter what, then we might as well breathe fully and willingly, right?

Another way to move from non-acceptance to acceptance is to try out the idea that actually, the shit that’s happening was supposed to happen, it had to happen, it was always going to happen, and there was never going to be any exemption granted. What does that mean? This reversal seems counterintuitive, right? If a new tire goes flat, then the tire was probably defective, but we paid all that money for a tire that wasn’t supposed to be defective, so how can we now say the flat was “supposed” to happen? If the subway is out of service, the root cause might be that our public transportation infrastructure isn’t being maintained properly, but we’re paying all that tax money for a system that’s supposed to work, so how can we now say the service outage was “supposed” to happen? It all depends on what we’re using as our frame of reference, our guiding principle. Are we focusing on the rule that says “this particular thing is supposed to work”, or are we focusing on the more general rule that says “every specific rule has an exception and every particular thing that is supposed to work will fail at an unexpected time and place”?

Let’s consider a specific rule about the behavior of pigs: pigs don’t fly. Is an exception to this rule “supposed” to happen or is it not? Are we “supposed” to someday have a flying pig collide with us while we’re out for a leisurely walk? According to the rule that “pigs don’t fly,” we’re never supposed to be struck by a projectile that turns out to be a flying pig — that’s why the rule “pigs don’t fly” is a rule at all. But we might also believe in a more general rule that says that every specific rule will encounter an exception some point. If we do encounter a flying pig, then yes, something like this was “supposed” to happen according to the general rule. Our flying pig can be interpreted an example of that general rule, an example of the broad principle that shit happens — including weird, crazy shit. Whether we feel that this particular shit “should” or “shouldn’t” have happened depends entirely on which of the two rules we’re paying more attention to — the specific rule or the general rule, the one that says shit shouldn’t happen, or one that says it should, and it will — or at least that sometime, in some unforeseen context, some unexpected deviation from whatever we’re expecting will occur.

Another way to say this is that life is full of patterns that are consistent enough to earn our trust, and we’re right to maintain that trust — but. Let me explain. If I use the subway 100 days in a row and it’s always operational, then I’m making a worthy and expedient choice when I trust it’s going to be operational on day 101. According to a 100-day history of reliable operation, the subway “shouldn’t” fail on day 101. My best strategy for carrying on my life as a commuter is to assume that subway will be running each morning because that’ll turn out true most of the time; if I assume it’s always going to break down, I’ll end up wasting a lot of time over many days and months overpreparing and making alternate arrangements, even if that’s only going to help me on one fluke occasion.

But if that fluke occurs, what should I think then? Should I conclude I had been foolish to place my faith in the 100-day pattern’s likely continuation into day 101? Should I wring my hands in fury at how the pattern betrayed my trust? Should I harp on my conviction that the fluke “shouldn’t” have occurred and that I’ve been deceived and cheated? I can do those things but they won’t help me.

It’s better for me if I acknowledge that my faith had been a good move, because that faith had simplified and streamlined my life for quite some time, and here’s where the “but” comes in. But, I can now invoke the “shit happens” principle, which says that it’s normal for a train to run 100 days in a row, creating an expectation that it’s reliable, and then break down on day 101. It’s normal for a pattern to be established and then suddenly broken. In that sense, yes, the train “should” have broken down, even though I couldn’t have known precisely when this would happen.

Does this mean we should all live in fear of everything randomly and suddenly breaking? No, it means that we should understand where we get our ideas about “should” and “shouldn’t” from. Our sense of what “should happen” or “shouldn’t happen” comes from our frame of reference — it comes from the rule we’re paying the most attention to at the time. And in life, we’re called upon to use different rules and to assume different frames of reference at different times. Life is about embracing patterns. Life is about handling exceptions to patterns. It’s about both. When a pattern holds true — great, that’s an expected part of life. When a pattern suddenly breaks — well, that’s also an expected part of life.

Stress comes from non-acceptance, and non-acceptance comes from the idea that what’s happening “shouldn’t” be happening. In countless situations, if we could only relinquish the concept of “shouldn’t,” we’d save ourselves a world of pain. But that’s not to say there’s something intrinsically wrong with “shouldn’t.” The idea that something “shouldn’t happen” is based on expectations about reality that we form by observing patterns. As we go about our busy affairs, it’s an expedient strategy to assume that things will continue to work the way we’ve seen them working before. When an expectation is defied, however, we can reduce our stress by cultivating acceptance quickly. Acceptance comes from relinquishing the idea that certain shit “shouldn’t” be happening or “wasn’t supposed” to happen. We can do this by recalling that there’s a larger, more general principle that says actually, this shit “should” be happening, insomuch as exceptions to rules, aberrations in patterns, and contradictions of principles are known to arise in unpredictable ways: this shit is just an example of that, and handling shit like this is just as much a part of life as is trusting and benefiting from the regularity and reliability of patterns.

Why work ourselves into knots to convince ourselves that something that wasn’t supposed to happen actually was supposed to happen? Because acceptance lets us move forward. To cultivate acceptance, we can remember: Life is about patterns. Life is about exceptions. It’s about both. We when we encounter exceptions, sometimes we can ignore them, sometimes we can be fascinated and entertained by them (as with a total solar eclipse that disrupts the familiar pattern of “night” and “day”), sometimes we can adapt and adjust and move on quickly, but sooner or later an exception will happen at a time that’s particularly startling, particularly inconvenient, and with particularly unpleasant consequences. It’ll make us feel like it’s unfair and it shouldn’t have happened. We won’t want to accept this shit even if we’ve made our peace with the fact that shit happens in general. But that’s it right there — that’s the meaning of “shit happens.” At some point, shit’ll happen when we’re at a nadir of readiness, willingness, openness, tolerance, and capacity for adaptation.

There’s a silver lining though. You might have heard it before: when shit happens, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow and change. It’s like having a personal trainer who makes you do the exercises that you wouldn’t do on your own even if you’re generally motivated to stay fit. And there’s a second silver lining, which is that the potential for shit to happen — the potential for expectations to be broken and patterns to be disrupted — includes the potential for negative expectations and bad patterns to be broken and disrupted. You might have a pattern of losing the lottery — most of us might have that same pattern — but shit can happen, and we can still win.

Patterns of frustration and denial and failure — patterns of “bad luck” — can be randomly, weirdly, and unexpectedly disrupted, just like the good patterns we want to keep. So basically, if we want to able to learn and grow, and if we want to have a chance to escape negative patterns, the unavoidable price is that sometimes a pattern will break and something will go wrong at the most inconvenient time. When we experience that inconvenience or that trouble, we can think of it as the flip side of having the opportunity of growth and change in our life.

I’m making it a personal hobby to see if I can talk myself out of despairing in minor disasters. I’m not trying to steel myself against the worst life could throw at me. I’m never going to be a navy seal who’s able to parachute into a battle and fight for days without sleep and nutrition, facing bullets and grenades without breaking a sweat, nor am I aiming to be so nonchalant in my actual life that the next time tragedy strikes me or my family or my community or my world, I won’t blink an eye. I just want to be able to possibly miss a dentist appointment due to a train delay and have to pay 95 dollars and waste a bunch of hours and then have to make a second trip and not feel any more miserable than I need to feel — ideally, not miserable at all. I want to be able experience minor hardships without losing my peace of mind. I want to remember to reconnect with my breathing throughout the day, especially when I’m feeling uncomfortable. I want to learn to cultivate acceptance quickly, really getting the full value out of understanding that “shit happens,” without reflexively arguing that this principle shouldn’t apply to me.

What happened with my dentist appointment? At maybe 8:52, I texted the office from the bus and they said they could hold my spot until 9:10AM. Then I got lost in working out my philosophy of “shit happens” for a while, forgetting about my surroundings completely until, wham! My bus arrived at functioning subway stop, I bolted into the station, a train came immediately, I took the train, then I ran from the subway to the dentist, and I arrived 9:09, panting. So this was a case where first, shit happened (massive transit delay), and then everything turned out fine (I made it to the appointment). Maybe there’s a lesson here, which is to remember that when shit happens, non-shit can happen next. ■

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