A Pathless Wood



The details aren’t important, but in a nutshell: Toward the end of last week I was walking along a steep cliff and slipped. A friend of mine reached down, caught me by the fingertips, and pulled me back up. I have never felt such relief; he’ll just say he was giving me a hand.

As years pass and the events of what turned out to be one of the truly shittiest weeks of my life fade to some horrible memory, what I will always now remember instead of the stress and the lack of sleep and the uncertainty, will be this gesture. It is difficult for any of us to translate the significance of another’s actions to someone who helps us out. I’ll avoid the “butterfly effect” metaphor, and I definitely will steer clear of the pebble in the pond bit, but it is along those lines—in a good way.

This is about perspective, of course. This is about what will become important to us in retrospect.

I remember a story once about a man who went fishing with his young son. The father had a lousy time because he so wanted to catch a fish for his son, or even better help his son hook one. He was so disappointed when they drove home with nothing, silent the entire time. Some months later his son had tragically passed and when going through his things he found a diary in which the boy wrote for the entry on that day of fishing, “Spent the whole day at the lake with my dad. Best day of my life!” Sometimes we miss the point.

I wonder how often we just assume the person falling will land on a ledge somewhere and be fine? Or even more, how many times do we figure “It isn’t all that bad! Look on the bright side”? Sometimes someone trusts us at our word and, without question, hooks in and helps out. What seems like a simple kindness to someone else might be the equivalent of a second birth to the guy who can’t hang on any longer.

So with what seems like a great deal of weight lifted from my shoulders I made a list of what is truly essential. I’ll avoid references to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, I’ll by-pass the five or so predictable Hallmarkesque choices such as “family” and “health,” and I’ll swiftly move to the following:

6. Walking in nature. There is an absolute presence of timelessness there. It is as it was hundreds of years ago and will be from now, it doesn’t pass judgement, it holds no grudges, it suffers no criticism. It is as close to perfection as one can get for the passing of time. It boggles my mind how it can clear my head so easily.

7. A sense of humor. I don’t mean reacting to jokes or watching a comedy. I mean exactly the opposite: I mean being able to see something unexpectedly tragic as an opportunity and a chance, seeing something that changes as simply something new, looking at getting lost as discovery, looking at losing something as simplifying.

8. Trust. I heard someone once quote St. Bernard of Clairvoux as saying. “We must learn to make excuses for other people.” I loved that. I want to move forward trusting that the excuses others have are pleas for forgiveness or help. I want to have more humility when someone needs to rush around me on the highway. I want to look at people as having good reasons for questionable actions. I just think it is healthier to trust and lose than spend life with the bitter aftertaste of doubt.

9. Talking to strangers. Everyone I know in my life was at one time a stranger. At the start I didn’t know the names of my closest confidants. I want to sit more on boardwalk benches for just five minutes if that’s all we can spare and talk. I did that a few weeks ago and an old man on vacation from Poughkeepsie and I talked about the smell of salt water in the air.

10. Laugh. (okay, I had to throw in at least one trite, predictable choice). We need to laugh for fun, of course, but just as much for survival, to blanket our fears, to extinguish our anxiety, to take away the hurt.

But you know what? At times I think Robert Frost was right: Life can seem like a pathless wood. Sometimes it hurts really bad anyway and you feel like a man on a cliff whose legs are about to give out. So we laugh and hope Buddha’s Vinaya was wrong when it called for ancient monks in India to go to confession for such an offense as laughing. I want to laugh like we did when we were young and we would tickle, entice, and play the clown or the fool. It is the ultimate in now, the definitive value of absolute present. It’s Nietzsche’s need to call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh. We laugh and nothing hurts and no one is going to die. We laugh and we must stop eating, talking, drinking, even moving because it is time to laugh and no one worries when someone laughs. No one is plotting damage or pouring hemlock; no time when we are laughing and we enjoy the break from the cold reality of life where things fall apart. But not when we let ourselves rejoice and be glad.

Eventually, I will forget the stress and the anxiety of these days, but I will never forget the friend who chased it away. Time is going faster now than ever before. And if I can slow it down just a little bit, it would be to spend more moments laughing with good friends, drinking wine, and try and finally understand that every single morning is a second chance.


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