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The next right thing

A little while back, something brought this memory to mind:

During the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years my father decided to assign me three summer reads with book reports. From the list he gave me, I first chose Cyrano De Bergerac. Having always been a fan of witty repartee, I enjoyed it immensely. And I’m sure I enjoyed the triumph of the clever and mostly good, if homely, protagonist.

The second book I chose was The Bridge Over San Luis Rey. I suspect that the moral and ethical complexities of the characters, and the place in time that they found themselves in, was beyond my scope of understanding. So though I got the point intellectually, the story didn’t resonate emotionally.

The last book I chose was The Old Man and the Sea. I don’t know if you know the story, and that summer is 30 years gone, so I may get the details slightly off but essentially:

The old man goes out in his boat and hooks the biggest fish of his life, a monster of a fish. For days he struggles to reel it in until finally managing to kill the beast. But the fish is too large to bring on board so he straps it to the side of the boat. Then the sharks start circling. And though he fights them off as he heads back home, they manage to eat so much of his prize that he returns to shore with only the skeleton. I’m not sure, actually, if he drags only bone up onto the sand or if he actually beaches a rotting corpse, its flesh not fit for consumption, a corpse that he must watch decomposing until only bones are left to bleach in the sun. I’m curious as to which scenario occurred. There would certainly be symbolic significance to the either.

But what I do remember is coming down the stairs, distressed and a bit pissed off and railing (delicately) at my pops…”This book is horrible! Horrible!” And he looks at me and asks me in his measured engineer’s way…”What is the theme of the book?” And still sitting in the morass of the unfairness of it all, I tell him…”I have absolutely no idea!” And he says to me…”It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

If you work that hard, if you are that dedicated, if you have tireless purity of intention, then life should just not kick you down.

Over the course of my life this memory has had occasion to return to me. And each time it has, I have failed to fully accept my father’s explanation. Again, intellectually, I can see his argument. But my soul has rejected the notion. If you work that hard, if you are that dedicated, if you have tireless purity of intention, then life should just not kick you down. But this last time the memory returned to me was different. I still wasn’t quite at the point where I could proclaim the truth from rooftops, but it did hit home.

I suspect this new found resonance was due, in no small part, to a singular, and yet not uncomfortable, realization that had come to me a couple few weeks prior, which is—likely as not, I will run out of time before I run out of dream. There’s no defeatism to this statement. It is just math. Given my personality and my circumstance, each phase of my dream takes 3-7 years to roll out. And at 42 I have fewer of those chunks of time available to me than I did when I started dreaming this dream. Also, it’s possible that I might not want to work forever at this dream as hard as I currently work at it. I might, instead, like to learn welding so I can make Calder-esque mobiles. I’ve always had a hankering to do that, too.

The end-goal part of my dream isn’t the important thing.

Perhaps the correlation between the theme of the book and my realization that I will run out of time long before I run out of dream is not perfectly obvious. But, to me, it seems a fairly direct connect. My dream isn’t the important thing. What I mean is, the end-goal part of my dream isn’t the important thing. Some days I feel I’m closer to that goal that I might could be. Some days I feel I should be closer to the goal than I actually am. And if that was all I focused on, I would oscillate between joy and agony on a fairly constant basis.

But what I have accomplished is a result of passion, belief, dedication, hard work, natural talent and a bit of luck...or divine action. And that is a lovely way to spend one’s days. For me, it’s the moving of the muscle, the exercising of all those components, that feels awesome. It’s the playing of the game that makes it worthwhile. Sure, having pushed the rock to the top of the hill comes with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. But feeling yourself WORK is the greater pleasure. Isn’t it? If you only enjoy the destination, then 95% of your life is rather compromised.

This realization is further illustrated by a lesson I learned later in high school. While we like to romanticize Native American culture, my high school English teacher was married to a minister and they spent a year on a reservation during the early part of his ministry. Two things that she told me about that time come back to me now and again. The first is that there were women who had fur coats, but no underwear. You should donate underwear. The second, was that the Native American kids just liked to play. They would play a game to 21 but once they got there they would make it go till 25, then 29 and so on. Winning wasn’t as important as the fun they were having playing the game. I like that. I like that a lot.

Now, this initial embracing of my father’s wisdom came to me rather gracefully. It really was a gentle awareness of time and my place inside of it. However, my next grappling with the topic, not so much. It took a lot of thinking (and feeling) to get to.

Such a large basket of problems leaves me feeling powerless

The world around us seems on fire. We are at a crossroads, I believe. And not just here in America. It is worldwide and planet deep. And such a large basket of problems leaves me feeling powerless. Powerlessness is a very uncomfortable feeling, but it is also instructive and freeing. I don’t know when death will find me, and I certainly can’t stop it from doing so. And I don’t know if decency will win, if equability will prosper, if compassion and inclusivity will ever rule the day. But here is the conclusion I have come to: I may not have the power to change the course of the world at large, my dream for the world may not come true, but that doesn’t effect how I conduct myself today. My job is to simply do the next right thing, as it presents itself. And even if I currently am not confident that the ripples I send out matter to the greater good, that doesn’t matter...because it isn’t if I win or lose, what is important is how I play the game.* And that is a guiding principle I can hang my hat on.

Solid as that guiding principle is it lacks something. It lacks hope. But something occurred to me today, as I walked my pups. I got to thinking, why didn’t that old man cut the carcass loose? Why didn’t he let it sink into the sea? Let the sharks have their way with it? Once the end result became obvious, why didn’t he cut his losses and make for shore in the safest, most efficient manner possible?

I live somewhere in the grey area between determination and foolhardiness. I am intimately familiar with dancing that line.

What makes a man, instead, use every ounce of bone and sinew and muscle and determination to drag onto shore a thing that some may say has no measurable value? And that is a fair question. How you play the game is to be admired, but where does grit end and insanity begin? I swim in that brackish water, I do. I live somewhere in the grey area between determination and foolhardiness. I am intimately familiar with dancing that line, yet still I could not say what lies on either side of it. But I can say that the fuel of both determination and foolhardiness is faith and hope.

What makes someone fight for something that is likely unwinnable? Or try to put something back together that appears so broken that nothing could ever be made of it again? Stay when they could cut and run? Dig deeper when the pain says stop? Not take a knee, even though it is the strategic thing to do? Continue to care, even when it would be easier to let go? I don’t know...but people do it all the time. Addicts get clean. Betrayal is forgive and trust rebuilt. People rise up out of poverty, abuse and lack of opportunity. They rise up and they thrive. Injustice is defeated; wrongs are transformed into rights. It happens. It happens every day. And it happens by people who have the quiet courage and stamina to simply do the next right thing, again and again and again.

And that courage and stamina is so much easier to maintain when you focus on the process and not the progress, the game and not the goal, the journey and not the destination. That is where powerlessness becomes powerful. The truth of the matter is you can’t guarantee the outcome. You can only control what your path towards that outcome looks like.

Play your hand all the way through and arrive on shore knowing the measure of your soul.

The end result may not look like what you hoped it would. Your worldly reward may never arrive, your marriage may still end, social justice may not prevail. Hell, the world as we know it could end tomorrow in fiery glory. But you will have played your hand all the way through and arrived on shore knowing the measure of your soul; knowing your depth and breadth and height. And I suspect that your measurements will feel just fine. And the reward you do find quite satisfying.

Peace and good things,


*"We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something. - Mother Teresa

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