The Hierarchy of Losers, Luck, and Our Inconvenient Reality by Melissa Hughes

I’ve been thinking about a man I encountered yesterday: a person I had an opportunity to meet, but chose to pass by. He was standing on the corner of Bay and Wellington, his coat in tatters, his toes poking out of holes in his shoes. His shoulders shook almost rhythmically, and he approached me, saying, “excuse me, miss—”

There is a thing people do where they look you in the eye  —  you’ve made that important, human contact  —  and yet you refuse to properly return their gaze. I did that to him, stepping around him as he approached, as one would dart around a taxi.

Later, I sat in my living room, with its hardwood floors and high ceilings and its winking, wide-eyed view of the lake, and I thought about a thing from years ago, the kind of recollection that can enter a clearing in your mind when you’re troubled by your own behaviour.

I was at a cocktail party in Rosedale, one of these events I’m forced to attend from time to time, that make me want to draw a circle around myself with chalk and sit in in it, reading a book and speaking to no one (this worked for me in high school. Not so much, lately).

Of course, I was asked what I do for a living. As my answer was clearly insufficient, he pressed, “But what do you want to do?” “Well, I want to help people,” I said, simply. He leaned in with a quizzical look, as if pondering some math problem, or how to properly carve a ham (in fact, he was looking down my dress). “Well,” he smiled. “I never thought of helping anyone.”

I have this problem with people. Sometimes I laugh in their faces. I have my methods of suppression: a strategically placed cough, the feigning of a sudden grimace of pain. To be clear, I do not laugh at stupid people, or ugly people, or those who are guilty of dull conformity. However, I have no problem pointing and laughing at someone who is unkind. I suppose it’s an unfair bias. People get mean the same way they get ugly; they’re born with it, or it develops over time from bad thoughts and generalized neglect. It’s fashioned out of emotional laziness, or, its opposite: overwrought ideas about themselves and their place in the order of the universe.

Let me be clear: there is not one fuck I give about a person’s social status. It’s bullshit, and, worse still, it is boring  a simple mechanism of sorting; it means we’re likely to be surrounded with those who are only outwardly like us, who look like us and sound like us and agree with our choices no matter how mediocre they are. And, so, it comes to pass that the first question you’re asked by a potential acquaintance is, “What do you do [to make money]?” (I’ve decided this is the white collar conversational equivalent of smoking.)

Social status is meaningless because a large component of life is luck. We can only transcend some circumstances. Hard work and perseverance won’t beat back mental or physical illness or profound personal trauma. You can go to war for yourself and your place in the world with all your might  —  and lose. Failure is always an option, and our society promotes a comfortable hierarchy of losers: our athletes are the easiest example. He gave it his all. He tried his best. He made $10 million last year, but let’s not judge his inability to win all too harshly.

The losers down at the bottom of the rope  —  those who have clearly been rattled by some devastating misfortune, the kind that leaves you passed out in a pool of your own urine with commuters stepping around you  —  they’re the ones who should have tried harder.

Chances are, they’ve also been through something most of us can’t begin to comprehend. And that something —  the mere fact of having survived  —  might be the opposite of the kind of life experiences that churn out average people destined for mediocrity. They have a voice  — something to contribute to the human conversation  —  and, yet, they are unseen and unheard. Voiceless.

I walked away from the fellow on Bay Street because the conversation was inconvenient. I was in a rush. I felt overwhelmed by my own small tragedies. His very existence was an annoyance to me.

But the most fragile and irretrievable equation in life is other people. They’re the thing we cannot replicate, the inconvenient reality. Life is cruel, and rarely fair. If we stop and look straight at it, we face a brutal and terrifying fact: all that separates us is often as slight as one terrible turn of luck.


Melissa Hughes is a Toronto-based writer whose freelance work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, and on CBC radio. She has worked as a reporter for the London Free Press and the Barrie Examiner. You can read all of her posts here, follow her on Twitter @meliss_hughes, and follow her Twitter novel in progress @hrtbleed.

 This post originally appeared on Medium.

Photo: The Toronto-Dominion Centre (Adam Bunch)


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