I lost an old friend to lung cancer late last year…never smoked a day in his life, but it hit him hard and fast. That said, he survived several years longer than his doctors expected, and died in his sleep, at home, just hours before a planned trip up to Penn State for a home football game…He hadn’t missed a single game in over a decade, and since it had to happen, the way he went was best: at home, bags packed, anticipating a PSU win.
The indignities he suffered without complaint are too many to list, but so are the people whose lives he enriched through his kindness, compassion, drive, and desire to make the world around him a better place. Every damn thing he did involved helping others, even when he was extremely ill…It was extraordinary to witness. He lived well and he died well. I’m a better man for being able to say he was my friend. His name was Thane J. Fake.
Only twice did I see a spark of anger well up in Thane during those last years. Of course he got irritated every once in a while. Who doesn’t, especially when dealing with issues like that? But real anger? Only twice. And it’s the cause behind one of those two instances that moves me to write today.
What set him off was seeing one person too many make excuses for why they couldn’t do something – why they couldn’t show up for work, why they couldn’t finish a project, why they couldn’t keep a job, why they couldn’t see things through. At the time, he felt the only reason he was still alive was because he pushed himself to complete what others said he couldn’t or shouldn’t even try. He got things done, because giving up was an unacceptable option. Death could take him, but it would have to catch him first…and considering how busy he kept, he forced it to give good chase.
So basically, what he hated were quitters. He was being forced out of life halfway through it. Meanwhile, others were being given far more time on earth, but doing far less with it, and only because of their own lack of character.
Ray Bradbury always said, “Get out of your own way and let it happen.” That is, push away your worst impulses and let your best strengths shine through to meet your goals. Unfortunately, I’ve lately had more encounters than usual with people who have chosen to ignore this advice, and the results have been predictable.
One person in particular comes to mind. I’ve known her for years. She had a promising life – did well in college, earned two degrees, and was virtually guaranteed success, so long as she remained patient and showed fortitude. Nothing insurmountable stood in her way…except herself. After her pursuit of a career in her field hit a few temporary obstacles, she simply gave up on it – even after others provided her numerous opportunities to get her foot in the door. A couple of setbacks, and she was gone. The career is now dead. The degrees are now worthless (though of course the debt is still there). The opportunities have passed her by. On top of that, the attitude that caused this failure has come to dominate other aspects of her life, too. She is now just a shadow of her former self…bitter, stagnant, and living below the poverty line. There is no shame at all in poverty – or, for that matter, in failure, which is perhaps life’s greatest teacher – unless it is self-inflicted and nothing is learned from it. That was the case here. She could have continued to try, but she gave up. Great things, in every avenue of life, are worth fighting for. Somewhere along the way she forgot that, and it has cost her dearly.
In the 1920s and early 30s, my grandfather worked in the Sagamore coal mines to put himself through college. He ended up becoming a teacher, then a high school principal, then an assistant superintendent. By the time he retired, he had made a positive, lasting contribution to his community and family. Those early years working in the mines killed him half a century later, after he developed Black Lung, but I am certain he wouldn’t have traded the opportunity – or the life he lived – for anything.
No one else in his immediate family had ever gone to college. In fact, my great-grandmother was illiterate. All, including him, had known much deprivation, hardship, and loss. My grandfather’s degree was an immense source of pride for him, and he was well aware that earning it was not only due to his own work ethic, but also the help others gave him along the way. Fulfilling his potential after receiving it was not only a matter of honor, but of obligation, and a task that he enthusiastically and successfully pursued.
What a disservice it would have been to him, and to everyone else in my family going back generations, if I, too, had gotten my degrees, then given up on pursuing a career in them at the first sign of difficulty. Choosing a trade over college is fine. Switching majors is fine. Changing careers is fine, and sometimes even healthy. But completing a college education — something millions of other people would give almost anything to have – only to ignore it entirely and settle for a low-paying job that doesn’t even require a high school diploma, is unconscionable to me…as it would have been for Thane, and as it would have been for my grandfather.
My latest bout with depression, along with some other recent events, really brought this topic to the forefront for me. One of the ways I worked through them was by always doing my best to be productive and positive, even when those were the last things I felt I could be. To a certain extent, my circumstances gave me a sense of perspective that I had been sorely lacking for some time. I came to understand that what we often complain about is barely worth mentioning, that what often seems like a hardship is barely a bump in the road, and that those who can’t get past playing the victim will often become one of their own making.
And I have also come to realize that relationships on whatever level with such people are destined to become toxic. Advice, support, and even love can be offered, but if they are all denied or taken for granted, and no changes are made, sometimes the only option left is to move on. Just as we cannot allow ourselves to become a victim of own own making, we also cannot allow ourselves to be dragged down with others who have already done so.
Misery loves company. So does failure.
But the same, thankfully, can be said for happiness and success, even if finding them takes more fortitude.