August 28, 2009

The Only Excuse

I used to think there was only one excuse in life and it was this:

I didn’t want it badly enough.

I honestly believed that the only thing keeping people from achieving their greatest aspirations was the kind of desire that led to perseverance and hard work. For myself, I literally thought no accomplishment was beyond my grasp. If I so desired, I could be a billionaire or president of the United States (not that either was ever my goal). All it would take is uncompromising single-mindedness and hard work.

That personal philosophy made me incredibly intolerant. (Actually, my wife had a better word for what it made me: an asshole). I had no patience for the castoffs of the world. I reckoned they had nothing to complain about, since they simply hadn’t wanted the alternative—a productive and fulfilled life—badly enough. And now that I think about it, that viewpoint led me to believe all people got what they’d wanted most. So what if after a few life lessons and their attendant consequences, the castoffs would now opt for a different set of circumstances. That, too, was obtainable. All they had to do is want it.

Then something happened. First, one of my sons got sick. That was certainly something I couldn’t will away. Though he has since recovered and is fine today, dealing with the illness and its aftermath stole much of my former optimism and replaced it with a recognition that there’s something deceitful and mean in my old worldview. Other disappointments followed, leading me to understand that humans are incredibly fragile creatures, despite their chest-pounding demonstrations of toughness. The truth is, for all of us the difference between a good life and a miserable existence will occasionally be measured in a second’s hesitation, or an inch in the wrong direction.

Many accomplished people believe their successes are the rewards of great desire and stick-to-itiveness. Since that’s partly right they’re welcome to their belief, but they should also know that many others are just as deserving, but didn’t get the luck of the draw. This idea is central to Robert Frost’s wonderful poem, The Road Not Taken. It's not so much about the value of choosing the less-traveled path, as how much of life is left open to chance. Seemingly innocuous decisions (should I go right or left?) can “make all the difference.”

That’s why we must do everything in our power to make sure all people have access to medical care. Perhaps you won’t need the guaranteed coverage, but you can never tell about the luck of the draw. Besides, someone you love might need it and all you'll be able to do is watch and wonder why there isn't help available.

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