“What did I do to deserve this?” goes the common lament. Sometimes we cannot help feeling as if we are the victims of bad karma. Or we might feel subject to the commonly referenced “Murphy’s Law:” anything that can go wrong will most certainly go wrong.
Sometimes, in a single day, week, month, or even year, we will encounter a series of misfortunes so unrelenting that the English language cannot fully capture the state of being a consistently unlucky person. Luckily, the Yiddish schlimazel seems to be a word that fulfills this definition.
The word schlimazel has informally entered American English to denote either someone having continuous and unremitting bad luck, or more harshly, an inept or bungling individual (in other words, someone that the world just has it in for). It is one thing not have a smooth day or to grapple with an ongoing problem, but when we suffer a series of unfavorable events, we sometimes cannot help feeling as if the universe is out to get us.
There is actually a famous individual in children’s fiction that captures the quintessential state of a schlimazel: the endearingly unfortunate Mr. Bump, who first appeared in English author Roger Hargreaves’ sixth book of the Mr. Men series in 1971. “The trouble was that Mr. Bump just could not help having little accidents. If there was something for Mr. Bump to bump into, he’d bump into it all right,” narrates Arthur Lowe in the character’s animated cartoon (now freely shared on YouTube). After leaving several jobs because he continually breaks things, poor Mr. Bump finds a job that is just right for him: picking apples at a farm, by bumping into trees and catching the falling fruit. Thus, the happy reader can conclude, the story of Mr. Bump isn’t so sad after all.
We all wish that we could turn our bad luck into good fortune, or at least accommodate it in a productive way like Mr. Bump. On the other hand, is continuing to engage in a bad habit (bumping into things) ideal, even if it somehow benefits us like Mr. Bump’s orchard job?
It is important not to bypass things or past conditioning that genuinely make us feel distressed. We must be compassionate toward ourselves and genuinely acknowledge the feelings within when something happens to us. As the teachers at Plum Village have taught, when we breathe in, we should take in our experience of sadness. Breathing out, we should tenderly embrace that sadness, soothing and talking to it like a parent asking her crying child what is wrong.
Trying to change our perspective without being honest with ourselves simply kicks the can down the road for further bad habits, and may even hinder our empathy for others when they themselves are feeling like schlimazels. Downplaying or denying suffering is an ineffective and unethical way to deal with hurt and pain. We can only change perspectives and outlooks once we are honest about the hurt that is stimulating us toward authentic change.
Interestingly, the case of Mr. Bump could even be an allegory for someone who is more comfortable repeating a negative habit, that of “bumping,” rather than seeking to move beyond that habit altogether. In an article on spiritual bypassing, Buddhistdoor Global columnist Tilly Campbell-Allen noted: “If, as a child, your experience of love was emotionally distant, your brain, as crazy as it might sound, will seek relationships that maintain distance, emotional or physical, or will push partners away, however much you may yearn for closeness and intimacy. Distance becomes your brain’s comfort zone and what it thinks is the normal way for love to be expressed. . . . Even when you intellectually understand that there are other ways to express love (you’ve seen it in the movies) your brain has become hardwired to behave otherwise and we continue to live on autopilot, at the whim of the reptilian brain.”*
This complex conditioning, which affects many of us and is not easy to neutralize, complicates the story. Is Mr. Bump stuck in a cycle of deeply subconscious bad habits, or is his series of bad luck simply a case of “stuff happens,” schlimazel?
We need to be careful in conflating the two. Buddhism always speaks of causes and conditions, but it also acknowledges that the workings of karma are unfathomable. All we can be sure of is this, regardless of the situation: we must accept that denying the reality of suffering cannot be equated with its transcendence. If anything, a series of unfortunate events is perhaps the universe’s somewhat blunt reminder that we are not superhuman, that misfortunes, if delivered in succession, wear us down no matter how invincible we might feel after a weekend retreat or on a good day.
We deserve compassion and understanding. We owe it to ourselves to not deny ourselves what we feel. When we cradle our misfortunes like we cradle upset children, with love, we are able to look at them with more clarity and see how we may heal—even for those who, at times, can identify a bit with Mr. Bump.
* Spiritual Bypassing and the Dangers of Unresolved Emotional Wounds (Buddhistdoor Global)