You might find it hard to believe that I was — and still am at times — a very cynical person. A hardened young man in my early 20s, I saw right through life to what it was, and it made me disgusted and sad. The best way I can describe it is by aligning to the mental attitude displayed by Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical character Henry Chinaski in his “coming of age” book Ham on Rye. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a “good boy,” but I’ve witnessed enough to know there’s a lot of BS out there.
It’s not too hard to be cynical these days, what with all the stuff you read about in the news and on social media. Even if it is a little exaggerated at times, you can still find enough truth that can make you think the world is going to hell and a hand basket. It doesn’t even have to be world events. Simply look at the lives of those around you. Eventually, everybody you know and love will become old or sick, and they will die. That’s one of life’s few, unfortunate promises.
Trust me, it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to continue along with this train of negativity, but I don’t care to write about it anymore. No, I’m not in denial. I’m not going to feign optimism in the face of something as inevitable as death. It is what it is, and medical advancements are great but will only take us so far.
But at some point these last few years, something clicked within me that made me think, “You know… this just isn’t working.” When I mean “this,” I’m of course referring to the cynical mind that plagued me daily. I was a depressive mess, and eventually, I woke up to the fact that being cynical about life is sort of counterproductive. Yes, a lot of things aren’t great, and yes, we all eventually face a grim end. But dwelling on the negativity only created a swirl of downward spiral in my own mental health. Just pain piling upon more pain.
I think there are a lot of well intentioned people who try to promote optimism by pouring their lives into things like humanitarian efforts. Those things are absolutely fantastic, wonderful, and beautiful, but let’s face facts here, folks: that death thing ain’t going away. And frankly, you have no idea when it’s coming, and it could be just around the corner for you. (Just like how nobody expected the beloved author Rachel Held Evans to succumb to an allergic reaction to a medication at the too young of age 37 earlier this year.)
Death awaits us all in the end. There’s nothing you can ultimately do about that.
I know, I know, you probably didn’t expect to read about death so much in a Thanksgiving post! But it’s here in that second bolded sentence that we finally get to the good news. Which, I have to laugh to myself about that as I type this. I’m sure you’re probably thinking, “You’ve laid this heavy trip on us by talking about death and reminding us there’s nothing we can do about it. Where’s the good news in that??”
Well, friends, let me tell you! We as humans are notoriously bad about being anxious about forthcoming events. Whether it be studying for a test or not knowing if you’ll be laid off from your job, we tend to focus our time and energies on these thoughts because we often have something within our power to sway those events in a more positive outcome. In the case of studying for a test, you have a LOT of power in producing a positive outcome. In the case of potentially losing your job to budget cuts, there’s probably not a whole lot you can do.
So, friend, let me ask you this: if you knew the definitive outcome to any situation, how would you behave differently? And I mean not-being-able-to-alter-the-future kind of definitive. Chances are, you probably wouldn’t pour so much energy into being anxious about it. That’s sort of freeing, isn’t it? I mean, if it is what it is, then why dwell on it?
I’m smiling now because I hope you’re seeing where I’m going with this.
Because guess what, friends?! We already know the grandiose outcome of our own lIves! We’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it! (Lots of exclamation points!!!)
Now take a deep breath…
Do you feel that freedom?
Knowing the end of your story frees you up to act in a way you never would if you truly thought you could stretch the boundary of your life into infinity. You may have many years left on this earth, but despite that, the end of the story remains. YOU choose to fill it as you please. You can be cynical about it, but what good is that? Let me tell you from personal experience, it’s only going to make you a bitter and hollow person. It’s not a fun place to be in.
You can see it all as a gift. Everything. This life is unpromised to us, and it could be that you have mere days left in this incarnation. You can stamp your feet and be angry about it, or you can accept it all and drink in the beauty of every second.
And that, friend, is the place I choose to find myself in these days. Sure, the world is full of pain, but there is also so much beauty and joy and love. I think about the bright smiles on my daughters’ faces. The laughter of my wife. The aroma of a cup of coffee. The camaraderie of my coworkers. The marvel of technology. The beauty in a song.
What joy it all is! What life!
It brings me back to a constant state of gratitude. Now, I often experience an overwhelming sense of just how good it is to be alive. The power of that sensation is often more than I can comprehend, certainly more than those former feelings of pure cynicism. Death is coming, but I get to enjoy all these beautiful things along the way? Yes, thank you!
So I hope to bring you this same joy, too, friends. If you’re in a spot where you feel like it’s all dark and hopeless, I’m here to tell you that you’re totally right and that there’s nothing you can do to change the ultimate outcome.
But what you can change is how you take it all in.
And there’s joy to be found here and now.
Happy Thanksgiving. Grace and peace to you and your loved ones.