Everything I Have is From Disaster

Scholar Mark Edmundson says, “[Harold] Bloom once told a seminar I was in that he used to ask people he’d just met what was the worst thing that ever happened to them. Cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? I’m more inclined to ask about the best.”

Why can’t we have both?

That is, the worst and best can (sometimes) be the same event, in time, or at least a mixed drink rather than straight hemlock. My home life coming apart in childhood made me feel that the army was my only way out. It was a disastrous time. But the army provided me friends, experiences, metaphors with which to think, and it paid for my undergraduate degree.

A marriage came apart, an everyday disaster, which led me back to Vietnam (where I was born) and to my father (whom I had not known). The death of my mother became the impetus for going to grad school and changing careers, better suiting my hopes for my life. One very bad job led to a much, much better job.

I am not trying to board the joy train or get a seat in the positivity suite. As Henry James knew, pain is pain to the person experiencing it, and there is no denying it. In fact, my belief is that true disaster creates concentric rings of effect that last forever, never to be undone, but which we fail to see after a time, often to our shame.

But there is some hope to be had: that things always change, that people are never one thing, that there are satisfactions lying everywhere in our paths like pennies.

The more interesting implication of this Pollyanna-defeating complexity, to me, is that all stories are lies, and the biggest stories fail worst, except for the small, seemingly-obvious ones. Right now, for instance, all the stories we have told each other about the nation—about democracy, equality, liberty, freedom, community, morality, ethics, fairness, education, service, sacrifice, wellness, caring, and mutual self-interest—are being proved wrong daily. The best we can hope for stories, those old cause-and-effect machines, those didactic sideshows, those monstrous wax dummies, is that they hold enough complexity within their frames to say something about the opposite of disaster, without trying to sell us on their completion.


Read more by John Griswold here.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.