“What’s the purpose of life?” the man said, and then he turned and looked at an older man slumped in a wheelchair just to his right. “You’ve had time to think about such things in recent years, so what conclusion have you drawn?”
The older man rested his head, covered in a tattered and graying white tennis hat, against the blue vinyl of the chair’s back. “Do you truly want to know what I think?” The soft look in his brown eyes suggested a person at peace with himself and what life had delivered. His words also wore gentleness as he said, “You’ve typically shown disdain for my values—and how they’ve shaped both my thinking and my advice.”
The younger man turned away before he spoke. “Despite the money I've made, and despite the power I've attained, and despite the material things I've accumulated, I haven’t garnered the type of love and respect that you did—and, for that matter, still seem to do as you sit there stripped of everything that delivers meaning to one’s life.”
The older man reached out and laid a wrinkled hand over a much smoother one. “That you've always believed would deliver such meaning.” The older man smiled before he focused in on the question marks adrift in the younger man’s blues eyes. Whereas he could remember so many times before when they'd flashed with anger, a pained look had now become the canvas on which those question marks were drawn.
Suddenly, the older man felt a sense of hope pouring into his shrunken and bent body.
The younger man let out a loud sigh. “My wife has left me, and both my children have sided with their mother." The old man said nothing, and soon the younger man continued ion, You’d think I’d been a real bastard to them all, but I showered them with the best things and experiences money could buy.”
The older man bit his lower lip. And then he slowly said, “You can’t win the love and devotion of others merely by showering them with the things that represent what’s important to you. Instead, you must seek to understand what’s important to them, and then provide them with those things.” The older man stared hard into those blue eyes before he added, “So, what might have satisfied their desires?”
The younger man placed his hands behind his head. “They wanted more of my time. But I'd already explained the demands on someone in my position.” His wavy salt-and-pepper hair didn’t move even as a sudden gust of wind blew off the tennis hat the older man was wearing.
"I see," the older man said as the younger man sprung from a black wrought iron chair and retrieved this article of clothing. As handed it to the older man and said, “Not one of them listened to me.”
"Thank you," the old man replied, and then he places the hat back upon his head. As he further adjusted it, he said, “You pursued your career with laser focus. But of course, some men have made different choices. As a result, they're surrounded by happy and loving families while you apparently are not.”
“I was on the fast track to success. But I’ve always been ambitious ans competitive whereas others have been content to live their lives as losers instead.”
The older man turned his head forty-five degrees and watched two birds which had landed on a wooden feeder he himself had built a few years earlier in the workshop of the continuing care community where he now lived. It hung from a sugar maple tree which, along with two eastern white pine trees now probably some twenty feet in height, afforded his apartment privacy from the community’s one main road which nearly encircled the four-story complex. He and the other residents had recently received a letter from the Executive Director requesting that all bird feeders be stored away until the following winter because they might attract bears into their community otherwise. However, the older man was disinclined to follow this instruction because he so enjoyed watching the birds the feeder attracted. Furthermore, he’d never seen a bear during the fifteen years he’d live in this New Hampshire community.
The younger man began to moan, “What should I do? I’m going crazy trying to exist in a quiet and empty house.”
The older man continued to watch the birds as they flew from the feeder and took refuge from the summer’s heat on a branch of the sugar maple tree. without turning his head he said, “Try embracing the emptiness and the quiet of your house versus condemning it. Try and perceive these things as unexpected gifts which can provide you with the environment of stillness you need to learn new things about yourself. These, in turn, should promote your level of self-awareness and, perhaps, even result in some kind of personal transformation.”
The younger man shot upward in his chair. His torso stiffened. His face became contorted. And then he shouted, “I don’t give a damn about all that crap you’ve always talked about. Furthermore, I’m the successful one here, aren’t I? So, my family should cow-tow to me.”
The older man turned his head toward the younger man. Another kindly smile appeared upon his lips. “Perhaps your wife and children absorbed that message? Furthermore, they apparently decided that the material things you offered could not compensate for the fact they were continually denied what they truly desired—a relationship with someone who felt blessed to have them in his life daily.”
The older man turned back to watch the birds. A blue jay and a cardinal had replaced the other birds which had flown off.
“I never expected this to happen,” the younger man said.
Th older man turned back toward the younger man. It suddenly struck the older man that his son now had the appearance of a melting snowman. “So, what do you desire for yourself now?” he said, and watched as his son only further melted into his chair.
In a voice barely audible he finally replied, “I don’t know.”
“Well, I suspect if you become open to listening to the soft inner voice within you that’s apt to become audible as you sit quietly in the stillness in your mansion in the weeks and months to come, you might gain some clarity about this.” The older man reached out and patted his son's arm.
The younger man jerked his head upright. “I thought I’d created the perfect life.”
His father sucked in a long breath of the hot and moist summer air. He allowed it to exhale nosily from his nostrils before he said, “Perhaps that’s the purpose of life—to have us constantly experience new things from which we can learn not only more about ourselves, others, and our world, but so that we might come to the realization that there’s no such thing as a perfect life.”
"I don't know about that," his son muttered.
The father gazed into the eyes of his son and gave a nod.“Now, I do believe that there can be perfect days—day after day after day, in fact. But to experience this, I also believe you must learn to accept and bless whatever your life delivers in the moment.”
The son stared back at his father. “Really, you can say that when you’re confined to that wheelchair day after day?”
“Yes—yes I can.” The older man waved his right hand in the air. “Oh, I admit that immediately following the car accident, I felt as though my life had been taken from me and indeed, there was little point in living. But a therapist helped me to realize that I still had the power to take control of my own mind—or I could create a mind which noted and blessed the small gifts which each day delivered, or i could create one constantly angry and bitter because of what had befallen me.” A smile spread across the old man's lips which was broader than any other he'd worn in recent time. He soon continued on, “I’ve discovered that things I might once have dismissed as small and insignificant can now fill my heart with great joy. Furthermore, I feel blessed whenever I can even briefly warm the heart of another.”
“You find contentment when you have nothing—when you are nothing,” his son suddenly spat back.
A pained look flashed in the older man’s eyes. And yet he said gently, “Son, you may believe what you just said. The important thing is, however, that I do not.”
A sudden burst of wind swirled about them. The father reached up and covered his tattered hat with his hands before he looked over to his son who was now shaking his head as if disbelief.
“You’re crazy," he finally muttered.
“Say what you might, Son, but I'll continue to believe that I’ve been blessed with more riches than you could likely ever imagine. But again, they're the creations of a mind I've come to rule—as opposed to allowing my mind to rule me."
"I still think you're crazy."
"I realize that the latter type of mind could keep me rooted in a place that sprouts continuous discontentment and unhappiness.” He tried to look into his son's blue eyes, but the younger man had turned his focus to the green grass beneath them. The father nonetheless continued on, “I pray that someday, you’ll come to have this same type of experience. And when you do, I believe you’ll discover another possible purpose of life—to embrace and love all that's in your midst, just as I suspect the Creator embraces and loves all that he has created."
The son was s pondering what type of dismissive remark he might make when he was suddenly struck by a glow that now radiated from the older man’s sunken brown eyes. Well, and then he scanned his father's face and realized there was a glow to the skin sitting wrinkled on his thin face.
He suddenly found himself wondering if there might be some wisdom behind his father's words after all.
The older man stretched forward and took his son's hands into his own. He gave them a squeeze and said, “How blessed I am to have the sun shining on my face for yet another day. however, I am But of course, I am even more blessed to have you here visiting me. In fact, I truly want to thank you, Son, for taking time from your hectic schedule to come here this weekend. My heart is singing in that way that only your presence facilitates.”
The son offered up merely the shortest of nods as tears filled his eyes. But he was hardly embarrassed by their presence because he found himself distracted by what seemed like a voice within him softly asking: Where has thinking that nothing is ever good enough truly gotten you in your life? Oh sure, you’re well-aware that others may be envious of what you’ve achieved, but wouldn’t you truly prefer to feel connected to others versus having walls stand between you? But the thing is, your sense of superiority and you sense of entitlement sustain them. Plus, the ambition treadmill on which you step each morning, pushing you to strive for only greater and greater success, is keeping you from knowing inner peace and happiness.
The voice seemed to disappear as quickly as it had arrived. But he continued to ponder the words it had spoken. So, perhaps his father had not been trying to attack him or be critical, as much as he was motivated by a desire to see his son embrace another path through life because he truly believed this might be a way for him to find the type of happiness which had thus far eluded him?
He felt a smile growing upon his lips. So perhaps his old man wasn’t the crazy one after all, but he was the one that was?
Well, except he realized that crazy truly wasn't the right word to use. It might be more accurate to state that it was sad that he'd so long dismissed so many of the things that had been good about his life, electing to label them as unimportant or insignificant. But henceforth, he'd seek to understand how he’d arrived at this emotionally painful place. Furthermore, how might he get from it to where he might experience the type of ongoing happiness and inner contentment he’d once believed the money and power he'd accumulated would deliver.
The younger man leaned forward in his chair toward his father and smiled broadly., “I did have a long list of things I’d wanted to accomplish this weekend. But I suddenly don’t care about then, either.” He arose from the wrought iron chair, took several steps in his father's direction, and then kneeled before his wheelchair. He reached out and took his father's wrinkled hands into his own and said, “Dad, I think being here with you this weekend is the start of a major change for me."
The father gave his son’s hands a squeeze. “I haven’t seen you smile like that since you were a young boy. Furthermore, I can’t tell you how seeing those stretched and upturned lips of yours, as opposed to your usually pursed ones, warms my heart in a way it hasn’t been warmed in years, either.”
“Mine is feeling warmer as well, Dad,” the son replied.
“Which makes mine feel only warmer yet,” his father said before bending over and kissing his son's forehead.