It was early September when I saw it—the remains of a creature so mangled and disfigured that it was nearly unidentifiable.
As I drove closer, up the curving road that neighbours a nearby pond, I could see the pieces of shell, the distinctive green and salmon-red colouring. I was looking at the remains of a full grown, red painted turtle.
It had been struck (presumably) no more than 10 feet from the giant, bright yellow diagonal street sign posted to warn drivers of increased (turtle) crossings in this area between the months of May and September.
Unbidden, I remembered reading that turtles have a surprisingly long life cycle. In North America, the average painted turtle will grow to nearly full size in five to eight years, and have a lifespan of between 20 and 40 years.This was a large specimen, with a shell the width of a dinner plate. How long had it been moving between ponds, warming itself on the hot pavement without incident before this? Five years at least. Maybe as many as 40.
Though endangered now, red painted turtles have been survivors. Non-marine turtles have remained largely unchanged for more than 200 million years, and have survived multiple catastrophic extinction events.
It felt as if an animal as armoured, ancient and well-adapted as this should somehow be protected from such a senseless and sudden end. Whether I was looking at a creature whose expansive future was stolen, or a long life abruptly ended, it felt absurd.
I realized I was expecting a consistent trajectory to life, but life stubbornly takes unexpected and drastic turns. An ancient forest is set ablaze by a single spark. A marriage is ended when one partner decides it. A life is built over thousands of days, and ends in a moment. Despite all its adaptations, vibrancy and resilience, life never stops being fragile and precarious. I knew this truth, but I did not like it.
If you begin to see the precarity of life, it’s hard to unsee it.
My work at the hospital reminds me of precarity daily. I meet so many people at turning points in their lives, the fulcrum between “before” and “after”. Before the car accident, and after. Before when a patient had only vague symptoms and after the received a life-altering diagnosis. Before they held the hand of a loved one for the last time and after.
Couldn’t the whole world be divided into “befores” and “afters”? Those who lived through a cataclysmic event that now divides their lives and those who remain blissfully ignorant to the fact they are currently living in the “before”?
Of this, I am certain, the precarity of life does not affect everyone equally, but it will affect everyone.
What do we do with this inescapable, universal precarity of life? Do we ignore it? Do we try to insulate ourselves from it (in ways both practical and superstitious)? Do we try to diminish or control it, having a ready reason for even the most absurd tragedies?
I suggest an expert in the field, Kate Bowler, who has attempted to answer the question “what do we do with precarity of life” for nearly a decade.
She knows a great deal about absurdity and fragility. At the age of 35, married, a new mother and having just reached the academic starting line of professorship at a prestigious university, Bowler was given the unforeseen and life-dissecting diagnosis of stage 4 colon cancer.
As she has repeatedly said, “there is no stage five”.
I read Bowler’s bestselling book, “Everything Happens For a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved)” when she first received her apocalyptic diagnosis. I felt the frantic determination in those words, the impossible weight of trying to get a whole life down in those few pages, and confronting the most thoughtless condolences and aphorisms along the way.
Her follow up book, “No Cure For Being Human” was written from the liminal space between hope and dread. She was a survivor for months at a time, planning her life between treatments and CT scans. In this time of uncertainty, she bore witness to the (occasionally well-meaning, occasionally deceptive) toxic positivity of the self help industry.
And for seven seasons now, I have regularly listened to her podcast “Everything Happens”, in which Bowler gets to interview other resilient, vibrant and heartbroken guests, who are intimately familiar with both the beauty and horrors of life. Often occurring at the same time.
The fact that Bowler’s public work has continued for this long is something she regularly celebrates in the face of its unlikeliness. Despite there being no stage five for colon cancer, she is still here and recently was declared to be in stable remission, cancer-free.
If anyone knew a secret to overcoming precarity, I believe it could be Bowler. If she wanted to, she could write “12 simple rules to overcoming colon cancer”, or using her theological beliefs and training to explain the absurdity of why she is alive and some of those beloved friends she sat in therapy with are not.
But instead, Kate’s public work is a consistent, considerate and fierce rejection of all the simple (and false) promises we can explain, outwit or adequately insulate ourselves from the precarity of life. Somehow, the soul of Bowler’s work does not deny or run from the precarious nature of life, but unflinchingly draws closer to it.
Who else would we possibly want to talk with when our world is falling apart? We would want to sit down with someone brave and compassionate enough to see our world as it really is.
What do we do with the precarity of life? Perhaps we begin by simply accepting it. Which is neither as simple, fatalistic or passive as it might sound.
If we really knew how precious and fragile and absurd life can be, how would we live differently? Perhaps more gracious with others and ourselves. Perhaps we would be more aware of the suffering both within and without. Perhaps we would become more alert and cautious. Perhaps we would slow down, both with people and along back roads with turtle crossings. Or, perhaps we would place more value on this one, wild, absurd and fragile life.
What do we do with the precarity of life? We spend the rest of our lives attempting to answer that question.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.