Tough Times

by Jake Block

There are times that weaken our spirits and urge us to throw away all that we have felt was worthy of our devotion.  Almost instinctively, we feel that the way we live our life is somehow to blame when we fail…and we all fail…yet, in the long run, even failures can be positive.

A wise person once told me that we learn nothing from our triumphs, only our mistakes.  Therefore, we should learn to love our mistakes as much as our victories, for only through them is true wisdom gained.  Well, she is wise, but I don’t know if I can totally buy her theory.  I’ve had some incredible highs in my life, and some lows that were pretty incredible as well.  I would like to think that I learned something from each…although the stronger of the lessons might well have come from trauma.

Pain is a great motivator and teacher.  It motivates you to get out of situations that can hold you back and stifle your creative energies.  We all get into them…a bad job, a bad relationship, one-sided friendships and business deals from hell.  Given the natural tendency for time to warp situations, most things work themselves out in the long run.  But there are times when we are so enmeshed in the drama of our own lives and entangled in the webs of the lives of others that time’s therapeutic power is thwarted.  Against all sense and against all sanity, we plunge ourselves again and again into psychological and emotional situations that we know in our hearts can only lead to more of the same.  Eternal optimists, we think that we can somehow make things different and affect a change for the better.

I’ve had some bad jobs and have always managed to make the best of them.  I was a hospital orderly and cleaned delivery rooms when I was 16.  After that, working in the dark, sweaty, and rat-attended spaghetti factory seemed like a promotion.  I worked as a janitor in a strip joint in St. Louis.  The pay wasn’t too good, but the fringe benefits were awesome (would you believe free popcorn?)  But if you really want to see the seamier side of life, try working as a Motel 6 desk clerk in a blighted inner-city.  Here was an education that will stay with me forever…believe me.  Compartmentalization allows me to deal with it, and whenever I get PMS (Poor Me Syndrome) I pop open one of those “Motel 6 files,” and I know that there places where the grass is a yellower shade of green than wherever I might be at the time!

You might say that I made mistakes in taking bad jobs.  Mostly, I worked where and when I could to keep body and soul together.  I needed to provide for myself, and an honest dollar is, to my mind, honest pay.  I had the chance to make money in less honorable ways, as do most people, and I would be lying to you if I told you that I didn’t think about it when half a cheese sandwich stood between me and a can of cat food (which you can take from me isn’t half bad if it’s all you have), but something inside told me to stick with it.  It could be worse.  Sometimes it was.  But after a while, it got better.

Things can’t get better unless you allow them to.  Simple as that.  I know people who bemoan their existence as a total waste of life and wallow in the depths of their despair like a fakir in a viper pit, and think of it as some sort of noble penance for past lives and past deeds.  They watch life slip through their fingers because they don’t understand that they don’t deserve to have tough times…it’s just their turn!

I’m often reminded of the joke about the man who lost his job and moaned, “Oh Lord, why me?”

His car was towed away and he moaned, “Oh Lord, why me?”

He took the bus and found his home ablaze.  He cried, “Oh Lord, why me?

A deep voice from above boomed, “Some people just piss me off!”

However you perceive him/her to be, it’s certain that god has a sense of humor.  Just look around you.  But then, it’s just as certain that there are days when god’s in a snit as well.  Sooner or later, it’s going to be “your turn in the barrel,” and all you really can do is smile through the good times and bolster your reserves for the hard times that surely will come.

A popular book told us that “Bad Things Happen To Good People.”  Not earth shaking news.  Anyone who has had a life knows the routine by rote!  Good things happen to bad people as well…a cosmic Yin/Yang that is repeated a million times a day.  It’s not that anyone is any better than anyone else.  Like the bumper sticker says, “Shit Happens.”  It could happen to me or to you…then again, we could be left blissfully unscathed by the traumas of life.  “You roll the bones and take your chances.”

The trick is not to get caught up in the whole “karma” shtick.  When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, it’s very easy to link incidences of “bad luck.”  We begin to think that perhaps this is some cosmic payback for some deed we’ve done (and we’ve all done things we aren’t particularly proud of.)  But look at it logically.  Things happen.  If it isn’t happening to you, it could be happening to me…and like you though I may, I would rather have my days in the sun while they last.

Tragic indeed are those who allow themselves to become stuck in the muck and mire of self doubt and self pity.  There are people that I know who have had a run of bad luck and have given up.  They carry that stint of trouble around their necks like an albatross, always ready to justify their failures with the past.  “Why try?  We tried once and failed.”  Why try indeed?

It’s a statistical fact that Babe Ruth held the world’s record for home runs.  That’s a proud feat.  But it’s also a statistical fact that the man who held the strikeout record at the same time was that same man.  Why?  You don’t get a “homer” unless you swing at the ball.  He tried.  Sometimes he failed.  Sometimes he swung so hard at the ball that he twisted himself into the dirt at home plate.  So what did he do?  He got back up, dusted himself off and took another shot at it.

It’s not an isolated story.  From Babe Ruth to Orville and Wilbur Wright, to Thomas Edison, and all the way to Donald Trump, winners win because they know what it takes to win…and they know the bitter taste of defeat.  They know that to win, you have to try.  That’s the hard part.  Losing is easy.  Just ask anyone who’s lost for lack of trying.  They can give you a million reasons why they failed…seldom will that list include their own deficiencies.  But it should, in glaring letters, right at the top.  Like I said, the shame isn’t in failing, but in failing to try.

We as a society have found that the path of least resistance is often the shortest way between two points.  Those who’ve lived near the “Mighty Mississippi” know that as well.  Every so often it decides that it’s just tired of meandering through the heartland and decides to go from point A to point B via the most direct route.  It’s a real headache for the lives of the thousands that she devastates in her impatience to reach the sea.  People are like that as well sometimes.  When their lives become stagnant and less than they would like them to be, they try the path of least resistance, causing havoc in the lives of others and throwing their own further off kilter at the same time.

Those of us who’ve been around the block once or twice know that, in metaphor, the shortest distance between two points is seldom a “straight line,” rather a series of twists and turns that eventually gets you to where you want to be.  What today seems success may one day seem like a plateau in life, and a good life well lived is a series of plateaus reaching ever higher.

I remember as a kids that we considered “success” being able to find a job — any job — to make enough money to move out of E. St. Louis and into St. Louis.  To our mind, that was the place to be.  Now, decades later, I’ve been around the world a couple of times, and St. Louis is no longer first on my list of places to live…in fact, it’s slipped off of the list.  I’ve seen Chicago…and New York, and Paris…Istanbul was a wonderful city, as is San Francisco.  I can afford to live just about in whatever city I choose, but I live in a relatively small city and feel just fine…success for me now has a somewhat different meaning.  And as I write, even that is beginning to change…age and situation change expectations.  Time and circumstances dictate life’s choices.

The late Reverend Robert Schuler said, “Tough times seldom last.  Tough people do.”  While I never thought I would hear myself say it, I’d have to agree with him on this one.  The gambler in me knows that the deck sometimes runs cold and, given time, a favorable shuffle, and the financial wherewithal to hold out, fortune will often shine again.

Tough times are like that.  Given time, a favorable shuffle and the guts to stick it out, things will usually get better.  Life is flux and flow like the tides and the sea.  Even the highest promontory can be brought down by the erosion of tide.  It’s the wise beach-dweller who keeps a dingy next to the car in the garage.


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