Crises, by definition, are chaotic. They don’t always impart lessons and, contrary to what we like to tell ourselves, they’re just as likely to bring out the worst in people as the best. But the redemption narrative, along with its corollary, the recovery narrative, is so beloved in our culture that even rational people tend to glom onto it — if only for the sake of making polite conversation. Equal parts bedtime story, love story and horror story, it’s a perfect example of the American preference for sentimentality and neat endings over honesty and authenticity.
The problem is, it’s also perfectly designed for making us feel like failures — to ourselves, to our loved ones, at life in general. And, ironically, the more we care about the chief sufferer in the crisis, the more we’re apt to try to impel that sufferer into making sense out of it for the sake of soothing our own nerves. By expecting my mother to deliver some kind of grand epiphany on her deathbed, I was really asking her to make the unfairness of her death somehow seem more just. By expecting me to become a better person after my own brush with death, my friends were really saying that they hoped I hadn’t scared the bejesus out of them for nothing.
They needn’t have worried. I’m not a better person. I’m the same person. Which is actually kind of a miracle.