When asked if I’d like to contribute to this very worthy effort some of the lessons I’ve learned in life (so far), my first inclination was to decline.
I thought, “What the hell do I actually know, anyway? What do I know for sure?” Now 69, having seen so many of what I once thought were eternal and iron-clad verities vanish like cigar smoke, it seemed like hubris to imagine I had anything worth saying.
But I also remembered this from Joan Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
So, maybe, I thought, I could figure out some of what I know by committing to this.
What showed up first was a boyhood memory. My family owned a camp on a lake in Maine for a few years. Out in deep water, maybe 50 yards from shore, maybe more, was a huge boulder. It was not marked by buoys or anything, but once you found it, you could stand on it and your head would be above water.
Every spring, my brother and I would head out and swim around trying to find it. We didn’t use masks or any kind of diving gear, we just kind of swam around in the general area and eventually one of us would see it and yell triumphantly to the other.
From there, we could triangulate and calibrate and estimate and pretty much be able to return to it whenever we wanted to for the rest of the summer.
That big rock was what first came to mind when I was pondering what lessons I’ve learned in life. I was thinking “how does anyone know anything?” That submerged boulder became the perfect metaphor. It’s something you can always stand on, year after year, unchanging even if the rest of your world is watery and mysterious and unknown and you’re not sure what direction you’re going in.
I wondered what else has felt like that in my life.
What also freed me up was this realization that I wasn’t asked to write about everything I’ve learned in my life, but only a few things. Surely I can do that, I thought.
If some learning shows up like that big rock and it shows up year after year after year and you can stand on it, it’s not really hubris just to say so.
The only place where the metaphor breaks down is this. It takes intention and work to find that rock, whereas a real, down-to-your-soles learning comes to you unbidden, just when you need it. No need to pick up your volume of Rumi’s sayings or search online for inspirational quotes, hoping something will hit like lightning. No need for locker room speeches. It just shows up.
Those ideas became the search parameters, if you will, for some lessons I’ve learned, from whatever sources, mentors, teachers, books or experiences of just fucking up often enough.
One light-hearted one came to me from the movie The Bucket List. Jack Nicholson’s character is explaining to Morgan Freeman’s character his three rules for living.
- Never pass up a chance to piss
- Never trust a fart
- Never waste a hard on.
I have not yet mastered number three, but just yesterday at work I remembered number two. I did fart and was unsure whether my briefs were still clean. I checked in the men’s room and it had in fact been just a fart.
I always obey the first, though. My senior bladder is not what it once was and I am proactive, even if I don’t feel much of an urge.
A second learning is actually from The Bard and the “locker room” speech in Henry V. I was at work, facing a tedious task I just didn’t feel like doing and, I shit you not, what I heard was “Once more unto the breach, man, once more.” That did the trick and I put my shoulder to the wheel. It just showed up when I needed it.
I don’t know if the learning here for other men is about reading more Shakespeare or watching more movies like The Bucket List, but I do know repetition over time has a cumulative affect.
It could be about filling your heart and mind and soul with good fuel (whatever that is for you) and doing so repeatedly for the payoff down the road.
A few more, with the same contours.
- Life is an approximation. I’ve heard my older friend say that so often it’s lodged in me deep. It’s a good anodyne for the useless seeking of perfection.
- Nothing has any meaning unless we assign it.
- Life should come with the same caveat toys often do — “Batteries not included.” Meaning not included, folks. You’re on your own there.
- Being able to say (and viscerally get the truth of) “I could be wrong,” and actually meaning it is a game changer. It could be a country (or world) changer if adopted.
- In like manner, asking “What’s great about this?” even when the “This” is shitty is wisdom for the ages and can shift your perspective. This is one that comes to me sometimes unbidden and other times it comes to me from other people when I need it. They remind me of how often I’ve said it and they mirror it back.
Oh, man, there is so much to this life isn’t there? We need all the wisdom we can get. We need those big rocks to keep our heads above the water.
One last piece of homespun wisdom from my maternal grandmother. She’d say “Eat a-plenty and keep a-going.” It resonates with a kind of elegant simplicity all these decades later.
So, eat, my brothers, celebrate, enjoy life. And keep going, keep moving, don’t ever quit.