Every day, every hour sees a change in you, although the ravages of time are easier to see in others; in your own case they are far less obvious, because to you they do not show. While other people are snatched away from us, we are being filched away surreptitiously from ourselves.
Are you never going to give any of these considerations any thought and never going to apply any healing treatment to your wounds, instead of sowing the seeds of worry for yourself by hoping for this or that, or despairing of obtaining this or that other thing? If you’re sensible you’ll run the two together, and never hope without an element of despair, never despair without an element of hope.
“Are you optimistic about the future?”
The question came from a buddy of mine who’s a good many years younger than I. The latter fact, plus that the query came over a beer at one of our fine local breweries, seemed to demand a reflective answer. And the fact that I’m still thinking about it after a good night’s sleep suggests that my response was both an honest, heartfelt summation of my thoughts and yet somehow incomplete.
Essentially, what I said to my friend was that I don’t think too much about the future because that keeps me from living in the present. None of us is guaranteed anything more than the moment we’re in, and we owe it to ourselves and those who love and rely upon us — and upon whom we love and rely in return — to be fully aware and accordingly engaged at all times. Joy and sorrow, work and play, movement and repose, excitement and drudgery, failure and success — every opposite is one, like the two ends of a string or the faces of a coin. All is life, and life does nothing but pass if you don’t embrace every bittersweet second of it.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. We live in shallow times, in which quantity is increasingly valued over quality and substance takes a back seat to appearance and effluvia. A million vested interests compete for our attention, each straining to outdo the others in volume and garishness and few if any of them with our individual or collective best interests in mind. Trying to separate that which is useful from that which seeks only to use us is akin to panning for gold. If you doubt this, just switch on your television during the hours cynically known as “prime time.” Or visit al.com.
The other thing I said in response to my friend was a paraphrase of a bit of philosophy from Walker Percy. As keen an observer and explainer of the human condition as ever set pen to paper, Percy had an essentially dark view of the world and the direction in which it seemed, during his life (he died in 1989) and even more so now, to be headed. Two things counterbalanced his pessimism, however, one temporal and one eternal.
The latter was his deep religious faith, the belief in individual redemption and the promise of a higher plane of existence. The former was a native Stoicism that was rooted in both the Southern culture and traditions in which Percy was raised and his own experience of the world, which included among other formative influences the suicide of his father when the future author was barely a teenager and the death two years later of his mother in a one-car accident that, Percy himself at least suspected, might also have been intentional. These two elements came together in an approach to life that I sum up with the somewhat inelegant formulation that the world may be going to hell in a handcart, but there’s no reason to let that ruin an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.
In other words, the basis of one’s — or, in this case, my — relative optimism or pessimism is ultimately illusory. So where does that leave me, having spun this tenuous web from a seemingly simple question lobbed over a friendly libation? Well, among other places, it leaves me with this thought: What matters for me, the thing that truly determines the quality of my life and the ultimate worth of my time — as father, son, brother, friend, writer, thinker, citizen — is the effort I put forth.
I want to make the world — or, realistically speaking, my little corner of it — a better place, but I accept that everything I attempt may well come to naught, that the only lasting evidence of my existence may be the marker on my grave. At the same time, I believe firmly that the only unacceptable thing is the failure to try — to take the world as it comes, to strive to be fully engaged in every aspect of my existence, and to appreciate the grand opportunity that is life.
That’s all I can do. That’s all any of us can do.