There is a fantastic scene from Stranger Than Fiction in which Harold Crick, a tax auditor, tallies the moments of his life in a little notebook. His goal: to discover if his life is a tragedy or a comedy. According to the oldest dramatic traditions, either he will get married (accepted into society and always have backup) or die (evicted from the planet by force of Mother Nature or a fellow human). Sometimes I wish I had a little black book to tell me so.
The baker gives you an extra cookie, no charge: comedy. Your high school crush comments on your profile picture and says your new summer tan makes you look, quote, “hot”: comedy. You catch the season finale of Swamp People while channel surfing: comedy. Flying down the highway at 80 mph, you pass an officer pulling someone else over for a ticket: comedy. All the little things that add up to assure you that you belong in the world, your place is valuable, and you’re going to make it in life.
You show up for your dentist appointment one day and one hour late: tragedy. You forget to turn in your timesheet on Thursday—which means your paycheck won’t get issued until the following Wednesday and the USPS won’t put it in your mailbox until the Monday after that: tragedy. Your bank teller informs you that depositing at the counter will cost you $9 since your account is now “paperless”: tragedy. The can of soda that you accidentally left in your car’s backseat cup holder explodes in the 120-degree heat while you’re working (caffeine-less) in the 55-degree office: tragedy. All the little things that accrue as evidence that you have no idea what you’re doing, the world doesn’t want you in it, and life ends when you’re 40 but can’t start until then either (something about paychecks and salaries and “work experience”).
So—all taken into account, is a life comedic or tragic? And, according to Tolstoy, Chekov, and a host of other brilliant Russian authors, does it even matter whether it’s one or the other? Is Romeo and Juliet the world’s greatest tragedy or cruelest comedy? The answer: yes.
Life is a tragicomedy. And the only way to ever make it through one of those is to keeping moving. Crying, laughing, skipping, or crawling, the show must go on. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal, after all; so make the best of it, they would say.
I re-discovered in the trunk of my car this week a box of books. Not because my car is so unbelievably cluttered that I forgot it was there; I forgot it was there because it has become a permanent fixture in my trunk. This box of books has been in my trunk since Spring 2010. Yes, 2010. I put it there after a book swap put on by the English Majors Association. The problem is that English majors hoard books, they don’t share them. The leftovers we planned on donating to a local library near our college. That was my best intention.
I convinced myself that even though the books rode all the way home with me when I cleaned out my apartment after graduation, when I visited my friends left behind, they would ride all the way back to the poor provincial library to whom they were justly due. We all see how that turned out. Tragic? Slightly. Comedic? Slightly. Absurd? Absolutely. And in the face of absurdity, the only answer is to keep going and quit carrying all your baggage around. All the undone things that sit in the trunk of psyche. All the decisions about whether or not we failed or succeeded. They should be mercifully cleared away.
I will be visiting my local library this afternoon—with a tragicomical smile of relief on my face.