Everyone is a teacher. I met one today. He was reading a Louis L’amour novel called The Strong Shall Live, sitting on a city bench in the outdoor seating area of Porto’s, my favorite bakery in Burbank, California. He appeared to be over eighty years old and wore a neatly-pressed suit and dress shoes despite the warm July weather. Because of his age, I imagined him to be a throwback to a time when men dressed well when they planned to be among others.
I had seen him reading in that spot before but never spoke to him. Today I decided to change that. I asked him how the book was. He smiled and said, “Excellent! I’ve read it a few times but it never gets old.” He said he has plenty of time to read now that he’s retired but likes to be around people. “Some men don’t like to drink alone,” he said with a smile. “I don’t like to read alone.”
I asked him what he did when he was younger. He replied, “What didn’t I do would be a shorter answer, or maybe what I wish I would have done.”
That seemed like a more interesting question anyway so I asked, “Okay, what do you wish you would have done?”
He said, “I always wanted to be a screenwriter. I even wrote a movie, but I never had the guts to share it with anyone.”
I told him that was a shame and suggested that he dust it off and share it now. He said, “Ah, no. I’m afraid the subject matter is as dated as I am. Nobody would be interested.”
I told him I happened to be a writer, offered to take a look at it, and suggested that maybe it was providence that brought us together, but he refused to share his screenplay. “To be honest,” he said, “I don’t even know where I put it.”
My fellow writers will understand how sad that made me feel. At the bottom of some box lay 120 pages he poured his heart and soul into at one time, yet never shared with anyone. He just held the dice, he never threw them. All the work for nothing.
An old line came to mind – “Much talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.” One could say the joy and reward was in the writing, but what is writing without an audience? Without new eyes? Third-party perspective?
He went on to say that he had done some stunt riding for westerns back in the 40’s and 50’s when he was very young. He had learned to ride growing up in Texas so it was easy work for him. He dreamt of being an actor but – and this is the part that really made me sad – he said, “I was never successful at that because I was a combination of shy and ignorant. I wasn’t assertive enough, and even if I had been, I was stupid.”
I felt he was being unfairly hard on himself and tried to make him feel better. I said, “Everybody is shy and uneducated to some degree when they’re young. There’s a reason people say ‘youth is wasted on the young.'” But he kept insisting that he was incurably stupid as a young man, and blamed that for his never being the screenwriter or actor he wanted to be. I tried again to comfort him by saying those businesses are hard for even the most assertive and educated. He conceded that was true.
It’s difficult to see anyone of an advanced age kicking themselves around. They’re the embodiment of what psychologist Erik Erickson described as the final stage of life – “integrity versus despair” – people either feel they’ve accomplished something with their lives or they’ve wasted it, that they were good or bad, wise or foolish. Grumpy old people are usually in despair. Nice, kind, friendly old people feel integrity – satisfaction with a life well-lived. I wondered if my new friend even saw the irony of telling me he never tried hard enough while reading a book called The Strong Shall Live.
This man puzzled me because he was very kind to me but not kind at all to himself. I suppose that’s true of most of us. Most of us occasionally say or think things about ourselves that we would never say about someone else. We really are our own worst enemy. As Mark Twain wrote, “I never met a man who gave me as much trouble as I have.”
So what lessons did this teacher teach me? I’ve been both shy and ignorant. Fortunately, it was many years ago when I was very young. But I’ve worked hard to educate myself in my chosen field, and I’m actually a bit of an extrovert now, so I’ve turned that around, thank God. It seems, therefore, that the only way to prevent that kind of despair in old age is to DO THE WORK, and what the work consists of is a uniquely individual thing. It can only be determined by us individually, privately. What is it that stands between you and your dream right now? How are you going to dissolve it, destroy it, get it out of the way?
Part of the work for me was writing my way out of my shyness, doubt, sadness, regret, guilt or any other emotion I didn’t want. These exercises often took the form of poems – big ideas in little packages. Powerful ideas change people, not lectures. What Joseph Campbell called “ouches and aah’s” – trials and revelations.
One of these poems was the one below about the bullies that hide in the heart. As much as I liked the man I met today, I don’t want to become him. I don’t want to read novels about courage under fire but have none myself. I don’t want to reach old age and wish I would have tried harder. I will not “tip-toe through life to arrive at death comfortably.” No. Lack of effort is failure by default. And the less we try to become who we are supposed to be, the less comfortable old age becomes.
There’s No Way Around But Through
When I was thirteen years old or so,
walking through the hallway to class,
the school bully stood in front of me
And absolutely refused to let me pass.
I moved to the left, and then to the right.
He just laughed and moved that way, too.
It was that moment when it dawned on me –
There was no way around but through.
So I kicked the bully right where it hurts.
He let out a yell and I watched him fall.
After that, he gave me plenty of room
When he saw me coming down the hall.
I really should try to remember his name,
Maybe send a flowery thank you card.
Without the lesson he taught that day,
My life might have been very hard.
You see, a bully doesn’t have to be human.
It’s what keeps you and your dream apart.
So much talent is forever lost to the world
Because of the bullies that hide in the heart.
So whatever it is that stands in your way
And keeps you from living a life that’s true,
Remember the lesson I learned from the bully.
My friend, there’s no way around but through.