Guest Blog by Patrick Lombardi
“Who cares?” my mom says. It’s her go-to response whenever someone criticizes her baked ziti or grumbles about the weather. She says it with a nonchalance that makes you immediately feel foolish for complaining. The retort is rivaled only by her second-favorite catchphrase: the equally stinging “Oh well.”
It’s one of the most important lessons my mother ever taught me without realizing she was teaching me anything.
Growing up, I’d ask myself that question whenever teased about my early-budding whiskers or any other time I felt embarrassed or ridiculed. “Who cares?” was my teenage “whatever.” It helped me pick my battles. Greg said I look like a werewolf? Don’t care. Farted during an algebra exam? Big whoop. Someone ate the last of the chocolate ice cream? Now we have a problem.
I became my own therapist, without the 200-dollar-an-hour charge. Which was perfect, because I needed to put that money toward ice cream. Sometime during my early adulthood, though, I stopped using the line correctly.
When someone would cut me off in traffic or bump into me in the grocery store, I stopped asking “Who cares?” Instead, I’d ask myself that question when in deep bouts of grief or guilt. If I had answered honestly, my response consistently would’ve been: “I do.” But I believed it was better and easier just to brush off the proverbial debris and move on to not caring about something else, as if that made me resilient.
For some reason, I was hung up on this concept of “resiliency” and thought not caring about anything was the cobblestone roadway leading there. In reality, I couldn’t have defined the term if someone marked the page for me in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
What I thought I knew about it I learned from Rocky Balboa movies. (The guy could get the snot kicked out of him for six films over three decades. That had to be resilience, right? He clobbered a Russian on steroids, for crying out loud!) In recent years I’ve learned there’s more to it than just being able to take a beating. It’s mental as much as it is physical, emotional more than impassive.
I judge myself more than I should—and I think more than others judge me, also. When someone takes a moment too long to say “Bless you,” I spend the next hour wondering if I sneezed wrong. I still sometimes forget to ask myself the important questions, like “Who cares?” or “How does one even sneeze wrong?” More importantly, how could someone who worries about sneezing wrong be considered resilient?
The only “comfort” (if that’s what it’s called) that I get from being this way is realizing that I’m not the only one. I’m part of a generation whose day is ruined within eight seconds of opening Facebook, yet we still visit the site 600 times a day. We spend so much time flipping out about politics that we didn’t even notice when McDonald’s stopped serving all-day breakfast. (I always crave hotcakes for lunch!) We’re summed up by what we’re perceived to be offended by and haphazardly diagnosed as resilient-less.
Although, how could we not be resilient? We were just kids when our parents, aunts, uncles, cousins didn’t come home from work on September 11, 2001. We lost friends before they were fitted for their caps and gowns and others who never made it out of Afghanistan. We were sacked by a financial crisis behind the line of scrimmage, then had the ball stripped from us by a global pandemic—all before our 30th birthdays. We’re marinating in student loan debt, juggling multiple jobs to cover the rent, and are on track to retire 10 years after our own funerals. Yet here we are: writing, working, loving, living, grinding. We’ve persisted and persevered just like the generations before us and all the ones who will follow. Who are we not to be resilient?
If you look up the definition of the word, you’ll learn, like I have, that it’s not just about recovering quickly from difficult conditions; it’s also the ability to withstand those same conditions. Recovery isn’t a prerequisite. It’s a goal.
We all have levels of resiliency in us. It’s variable, etched on a rubber band, not in stone. This pliancy is a necessity, a tool that helps us to grow and improve ourselves from the inside out. Similarly, life events, no matter how miniscule, help us to appreciate the big picture.
In recent years, I’ve been holding my loved ones closer and longer in greetings and farewells. I’m bad at staying in touch, I’ll admit. But when I finally see my family and friends again, I don’t want to stop seeing them. My sentimentality derives from loss. I’ve been to more funerals than concerts, which is something I shouldn’t have to admit for another 40 years. One of my best friends died at 23 years old. Just this past fall, my wife miscarried during her/our first pregnancy. I’m (hopefully) not even halfway through my life yet, so I know this isn’t the last I’ll be seeing of loss.
There are countless individuals with stories like this and a myriad more who experience worse and severe tragedy and trauma on a regular basis. In those times of loss, stress, failure, and abuse, it can be easy to ask the question “Who cares?” and let it hang there like damp sheets on a clothesline. What’s challenging is answering thoughtfully and honestly.
My mother seems to have it down pat. “Don’t like my cooking?” She’ll respond, “Who cares?” with the same cheek as “Up yours.” But when a relative passes away or someone gets sick, it’s out of her vocabulary. She shows she cares instead of wasting her time pretending she doesn’t. Asking, “Who cares?” only accomplishes the latter.
I still like to ask myself that question, though, whether something tragic or simply unfortunate happens—or even when I find I’m harping too much on something. I’m able to cut down my problems and concerns into chewable, bite-sized pieces. They’re easier to digest that way. Everything wears us down to some degree, but we build ourselves back up through our attention and personal efforts, even if it takes a while.
None of this diminishes a person’s diligence or determination. That’s just the way life is. You wouldn’t be here, reading this, if you weren’t stout and tenacious. That persistence and perseverance is what’s important.
The question may remain: Are you resilient? The answer is yes.
Am I ? Eh, I make a convincing argument. But oh well. Who cares?
Patrick Lombardi is a lifelong New Jersey resident. He earned his B.A. in English from Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. He is a full-time employee with the state and contributes original content to BestofNJ.com, including a food truck series, historic series, and hiking features. He also has been published in outlets such as Buzzfeed, NJ.com, Odyssey, MyCentralJersey.com, and Patch.com. He published his first book, Junk Sale, a collection of humorous short stories and essays, in August 2018. You can reach him at PatrickLombardi.com.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.