During a recent conversation with other thirty-somethings at a party, I mentioned how I thought that my senior year of high school was the best year of my life. Others said that college was. One friend pointed out that best time of his life is right now.
The more I think about it, the more I know that he’s right. Not just about his personal experience, though. I think that for everyone, right now is the best time of your life. Think about it: you may remember things fondly from the past – the freedom and fun of your younger years, falling in love, having your first child, taking that trip to Europe – but these things are all just memories, nostalgic images of good things that happened that can never be taken away from you. The old line from Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris,” comes to mind. But there’s more to that statement than that line. Try to dismiss your familiarity with one of the most-quoted scenes in movie history, and pay attention to what precedes it:
Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris.
Rick is advocating putting the past behind because the present moment provides an opportunity for greater happiness. We like to hold on to “Paris,” to the old memories, but that’s all they are. Today, you have choices before you. You get to decide what you want to do with every minute today. You get to capitalize on opportunities, share joy with others, experience beauty, and chart a course for future happiness.
For some of you, this may ring a little hollow. Life can be cruel sometimes. Loved ones die. Jobs are lost. Hard times happen. I won’t dispute any of this. In fact, I’d say I understand it fairly well.
In 2007, my mother-in-law was murdered. In 2009, after my father-in-law fell ill, I quit my job so that we could move out to Arizona to take care of him, and help manage his businesses along with what remained of his late ex-wife’s estate. After he returned to health a year later, he betrayed us, and we were left with nothing for our efforts. In what seemed to be a positive change, my wife got a job offer, so we moved to a new city and signed a lease on a house. Within a month, though, she was let go with no explanation, and we were suddenly without any income. We had already burned through the little savings we had. And we had just found out we were pregnant with our fifth child. There was such a backup on food stamp requests, we couldn’t get them for over two months. The best I could manage was to get a job paying only $13 dollars an hour with no benefits and no overtime. I was working 60 hours a week and barely covering our most basic expenses. Friends and family were loaning or donating money to us just to keep us afloat. Every day I was wracked with worry that my family wouldn’t have enough to eat, or would wind up out on the street. We needed new brakes on our van. Then our tires started to blow, one by one, because we they so badly needed replacing. I was desperate.
But for the first time in my life, I didn’t give up, or hide, or get stuck on the idea that the world owed me something. I prayed and I worked and I did my best to find some peace. I took my camera and shot my sister’s wedding – a first for me, and a much-needed distraction from my anxiety. I started applying for jobs back East, and when a guy I knew only through the Internet offered to loan me $2,000, I pounced. We got the car fixed, put our things in storage, found new tenants to take over our lease, and moved back to Virginia. We had no choice but to live in the basement of my parents’ town home, which was way too small for a family our size. Still, we were in a lot of debt, and couldn’t hope to afford a place of our own. Within 30 days, though, I managed to land a good job. Despite the way things had been, I had managed to keep positive, and I was able to build great relationships with my new employers during the interview process. 11 months after we landed in my parents’ basement, we closed on a beautiful home in the woods where my kids would at last have the room to play and grow that I had always wanted to give them.
And now we continue to thrive. My wife just started her own business. I continue to develop in my profession, I’m getting healthier than I’ve ever been, and I am pursuing personal growth with a new found passion. Yesterday afternoon, Jamie and I went to see a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Baltimore Concert Opera, and then went out to dinner with friends. Just two years ago, such a simple evening out would have been an almost unimaginable luxury. And while we’re still rebuilding our financial health, I am confident for the first time in my life that we can experience these little pleasures in life more often, because we’re only getting started on our path to success.
Life is full of struggle. Being a grownup requires that we embrace discomfort and responsibility. I remember high school with fondness, just like I think back on college nights sitting out by the bonfire, drinking too much and staying up too late and talking about all the important questions in life. But now I am answering those questions. Now is the time for accomplishment. Whatever your situation is at this moment, you can be working toward your goals and a better life. You can show the people you love how much you love them. If you have children, you can spend time with them, nourishing their curiosity and watching them grow. You can take the steps that will bring your work to the next level. You can grab a cup of hot coffee and go outside and breathe the cool, spring air and see that life is pretty damn good right now.
My advice? Get up early every day. Be grateful that you have another chance at life, and commit yourself to doing the best you can, just for that day. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t lay around in bed. Don’t drown your sorrows. Don’t plop down in front of the TV. Don’t just put on your “Carpe Diem” t-shirt. Actually go out and seize the day.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite bits of poetry, from T.S. Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady:
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
“Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.”