What is a life? The entirety of everything we will ever know, no matter how long we may live, is the briefest fleeting fraction of an eye blink on the scale of the universe. Even if we were to ever conquer the aging process of our own bodies and measure our lives in centuries rather than decades, our experience wouldn’t equal the scale of a grain of sand on a beach. Looking further, let’s imagine we miraculously unlocked the secret to transferring our consciousness to new forms, allowing us to learn, live and love for 10,000 years. Even in that far off level of conjecture, our maddeningly long lives and all we would ever feel and know would still not equal that grain of sand.
When some people come to this realization they feel infinitely small. The question of why we are here no longer matters. If you allow your vision to be narrow, if you cast your eyes only on your own feet and what’s under them, life loses value. What you do with the time you have becomes an afterthought. In all honesty, to many, it’s not even an afterthought, but rather a non-thought. The shear repetition of each day mesmerizes and blinds us to the opportunity we have simply by being born and given a chance to walk our road.
A few weeks ago, my step-dad, Dennis “Bud” Shingle, taught me the most important lesson that he ever passed down to me in the three and a half decades that we shared. At 9:00pm he joked with my brother in the kitchen as he warmed his dinner, then he went to his desk in his bedroom, and sat down at his computer, most likely preparing to enjoy his flight simulator. Sometime very shortly after that, he had a sudden heart attack and was gone. His bedroom doors were open and my mom and brother were in the front room but he didn’t even call out. He simply closed his eyes in his chair and his journey through this life was over.
My purpose in exposing this story today is not that life is short as it might appear to be. We all know this. The lesson that I got from Bud was on the importance of how we deal with the stones that life puts in our path and what can happen when we decide to start carrying them with us rather than sweeping them aside. If we collect these stones as we travel our path, their weight will eventually bring us to a halt, leaving us to stand, holding on to our heavy burden while the world moves by.
Let me first make one thing abundantly clear. Bud was a great guy. He had an odd but great sense of humor and for most of his life was constantly joking with razor sharp sarcasm. He Loved my mother and raised my brother and I with her for 35 years. But Bud was a pessimist through and through. He learned that from his father, I’m sure. His way of looking at life was not to get your hopes up to high so that you aren’t disappointed. In spite of this “preparedness”, whenever life would eventually disappoint him, it would still hit him hard, leaving him to focus on what had been taken away. Life did disappoint too. When I was young, his family lost their travel agency that was going to be his. He had to take a job at Sam’s Club to get by for a few years and would eventually settle in at as a technician rebuilding aircraft parts for a company that would eventually be bought by Gulfstream.
Over the years however, the jovial man with what many people see as a “practical” outlook kept collecting those stones and, truthfully, there were only a couple of large ones along the way. Despite being a heavy smoker and daily drinker his health was great, even if he did carry an extra thirty pounds or so. He had a devoted wife and a home of his own. Eventually though, he found what would be his stopping stone, and when he found it in his road a few years ago, he sat down and stayed with it.
As happens to many of us, he was let go unceremoniously from his job with Gulfstream. At his age this was no doubt a huge hurdle and he simply decided he wasn’t going to jump anymore. He decided to try to make it through for the last couple of years before he bacame eligible for Social Security. That decision is not what really hurt my old friend though. The problem came when he spent those next few years polishing the stone collection that life had given him. His focus became everything that had hurt him and how terrible life had been. My mother, who is nothing but a bright light in this universe had to struggle with and convince him to enjoy anything. He eventually became resentful of anyone being happy around him to a certain extent.
One of our last conversations was extremely confrontational as I made an effort to verbally defend my mother. When I tried to tell him that he should really look at his life and realize how lucky he was, his response was immediate and crystal clear lens on the way he viewed the world. “If I was in your shoes, I could see how you might feel that way.” was his response to me referring to my Parkinson’s Disease. I never took it as an attack, but it was a refusal to change his perspective. His attention was consumed by what had been taken away and how hard things were.
In the end, one of the most comforting thoughts on his passing was the same that we all think when someone passes after a long illness. “At least he’s not suffering now.” we realized. Imagine that, a healthy man, who had basically willed his life into a state where his loved ones were relieved for him on his passing.
Our family is moving on now. My mother will shine her light on her first great grandchild in one month (I have chosen Grandalf as the grandpa name for little Arya to call me). What I want us all to learn from Bud is the importance of how we choose to perceive our struggles and obstacles. For your own sake, sweep those stones off the path and move on.
I have read that science calculates the probability of you being born as you are is 1 in 400 trillion. You are the only one who can walk your path, so walk it. Life is struggle. If you kept trying for another shot at your life, you would fail 400 TRILLION times. The fact that we are given such a tiny window to experience anything at all only makes that time more valuable, not less. I may have come to this realization the hard way, but I am honestly very glad I came to it. If the price I have to pay for the chance to wake up for the second half of my life rather than stumbling, hypnotized, from stone to stone is a limp, a shaky body, brain surgery and a life of harsh medications then I will pay it.
I will likely never have many of the things I dreamed about as an young man and this difficult life I’ve had will only get harder. I, however have been shown the way to keep my path clear with my head up and my eyes focused on what I do have rather than what I’ve lost. Don’t wait 400 trillion times for another shot. Live this one. Thank you Bud, and Godspeed.