A year ago, I took the subway home after a night out and woke up several stops past the stop I was supposed to get off at, disoriented and flustered, and to the realization that my purse had been stolen. It was late and my roommate was out of town—my keys were gone, along with my phone, metro card, and money, and it was freezing outside. I descended into a mild panic, as I rushed in the opposite direction back toward home. After buzzing every button on the door of my building to no avail, and with great reluctance because I know how annoying and jarring it is to be on the receiving end of that, I began to resign myself to the fact that I would just need to post up on my doorstep until someone exited the building.
As I settled into that thought, a voice responded on the speaker system, saying “Alicia?” I’m not Alicia, but whoever she is, I’m grateful she had friends in the building that were expecting her, because the door then opened. I made my way up to the apartment of the girls who’d responded to explain my situation, apologize for disturbing them, and thank them for buzzing me in.
Ultimately, they did far more than I ever could have asked for or expected. They tried to help me get into my apartment, lent me their phones to cancel my cards, and put me up for the night. They were sympathetic, warm, and understanding. What’s more, over the course of the night, each one separately told me that, upon my arrival the three of them were about to get into a huge fight, but then they got distracted. Something about the coinciding of events, the timing of our respective chaos, and their generosity put me in an unexpected and unfaltering state of happiness and appreciation. I’d carelessly allowed myself to get into a terribly vulnerable position, with the potential for a disastrous ending, and I’d emerged physically unharmed, sheltered, and touched by the compassion of others. All that I’d lost was replaceable, and ultimately I’d gained something more difficult to find. I was so surprised by my joyful reaction to the situation, and as much as I felt like an idiot for putting myself in the situation, I also felt a sense of pride and satisfaction in the knowledge that I knew with great certainty what mattered most in life.
These situations that, at first sight, are sources of regret and remorse can result in meaningful lessons that far outlast the initial feelings of negativity. We all have to make our own mistakes and learn from them in our own way, but that doesn’t mean we can’t share the knowledge we gain with each other as well. I learned several valuable lessons from this experience:
1. You never know when you’ll have to rely on the kindness of strangers, or when you will be a stranger whose kindness is needed. I don’t know that karma works as efficiently and effectively as we might all like to believe, but I do think the more kindness is put out into the world, the better… and also the more likely you are to stumble upon some yourself.
2. Perspective matters most when it is hardest to summon. This experience, though unpleasant and somewhat expensive to repair, settled over me in an oddly joyful way. Once I got inside the building I was filled with an immense sense of appreciation for the fact that in a situation that could have been truly dangerous or devastating, I emerged unscathed. It was good that it happened because it startled me out of making the same stupid mistake again—it taught me an infinitely valuable lesson with finite consequences. That alone is something to be grateful for.
3. The unconditional love and support of friends is one of the greatest gifts you can give and receive in life. I know I’d be lost without my friends—they are my non-judgmental compass in my life when I find myself most lost. The fact that this incident happened when my roommate was out of town shed light on how often and in how many ways I have been far better off thanks to the help of my friends. Cherish friendship and treat it like the treasure it is.
4. Though we are often tempted to believe we are, and have moments where we feel it with great certainty, we are not invincible. Parading time and again into potentially unsafe situations under the guise of spontaneity and the mantra of carpe diem is destined to end badly eventually. There are balances to be struck. This situation awoke in me an acute understanding of my mortality and vulnerability and the need to act accordingly. I can become more mature without becoming more mundane; I can take more calculated risks while making fewer rash decisions.
5. Don’t be held hostage by habits. The beauty and burden of habits is that they are simply that—something we do so frequently and so routinely, it is almost an instinct. Therefore, harnessing the will power and dedication to dictate what our habits will be is an immensely worthwhile challenge.
6. Sometimes, we have to know when to abandon one end for another. I opted to take the train that night in the name of frugality and an attempt to be more conscious of my spending. Ironic that, in turning down a $30 cab ride on behalf of the train, I found myself in a position where I had to spend hundreds of dollars to replace stolen items. This taught me the sometimes subtle, but always relevant difference between being steadfast and stubborn with respect to goals, and the value in being versatile in thought and engaged with your circumstances to know when to bend. I still try to avoid cab rides when cheaper options are available, but if it’s after 12am and I’m alone, I cut my losses and call the cab. I figure, if I can’t afford to call a cab, or can’t curtail my plans to end earlier, then I don’t need to go out.
7. In order to learn from our mistakes, we must react to them deliberately. We must assess the situation, extract the lesson, and determine to change our actions based on what we learned. Mistakes are just that if we do not dig through the mess to recover the gift it affords us, but the value buried in regret is priceless. Hell, you’ve already messed up, the worst is done; it’s worth dirtying your nails to dig up the lesson.