We have no business looking at the bright side
In my prior life as a full-time writer for government officials and corporate leaders, I was paid to produce upbeat speeches, clarion calls for action, noble words, lofty phrases, memorable quotes intended to lift audiences out of the mundane and into some higher plane. Dour words were not to be used; harsh reality not to be admitted; hard truths to be avoided.
The expectation that we will write happy things
Whether I was writing op-eds, thought pieces,press releases, white papers, or speeches, I was expected to turn in happy work, or, at least, audience-friendly work. Thousands of speeches, millions of words, a handful of negativity.
There were somber pieces once in a while, of course. Eulogies, Memorial Day and Veterans Day speeches, commemorations of great battles or of heroic lives cut too short. But even in those writings, I usually found something of warm emotional value to temper the tear stains with a bit of joy or light.
During this time of quarantine — being lifted far too soon in my opinion — I’ve gone over years of my writing output in part to critique my much younger self (a cringe-worthy exercise all writers should undertake), and in part to gauge the changes in my worldview over the past 40 years of writing.
The real world intrudes
When I sit down to write my blog or stories, I try to imagine what it must be like to be truly vulnerable, alone, old, fearful, disabled, socially awkward or rejected, homeless, sick and poor, blind, hurting inside, hungry, taunted, bullied, unloved, depressed to the point of hopelessness, cast aside, heartbroken.
I ask myself is it fair to enjoy any part of life when billions of people live in poverty, have no running water, no shelter, no prospects other than endless days of deprivation? To be happy at such a time flies in the face of humanity. I have so much; they have nothing.
And I should be happy? I should laugh and enjoy my life? What a hypocrite I must be every time I go for a walk through my manicured neighborhood and take in the sounds and sights of my “normal” world. Families barbecuing, gardeners tending their flowerbeds, well-fed children playing games and laughing. Scenes that are not common just 200 miles from where I write this, scenes of poverty in West Virginia, of no medical care in Kentucky, of poor education in Southern Virginia. And I should be happy? In what alternate universe does the misery of one neighborhood allow the humor of another?
I try to imagine what it must be like to be the victim of gas lighting — the kind dictators and manic presidents engage in — fearing it is you, not the man behind the curtain, who is going crazy, and falling prey to the fear-mongering and calls for national division — you versus them.
From that perspective, the voice of the beaten-down man or woman says to me, “There is this beautiful country in which people not-like-me seem to have it all…and still complain. And I wonder how that could be…how could such a place pass me by…not see me in its headlong pursuit of wealth and madness.”
So why write at all?
I write to see if anyone out there cares about people like that…the little guy in the shadows of everybody else’s success.
I write for those who can’t speak. I write for those who don’t believe they will ever be heard. I write for those who are afraid they will be heard and punished for their words.
Ironically, those for whom I write will never see these words. I am not an influencer who will affect their lives. They do not subscribe to online forums; they are too busy struggling to spend luxury time reading an obscure writer who really is not like them at all. But still I write.
I write to let them know that at least one old guy gets them and wants to give their lives meaning in this otherwise beautiful country that is being led by people who have forgotten how to care for, cherish, celebrate and share the gifts meant for all of us.
As for me, once very much an optimist and writer of positive messages, I have lost that thread of fulfillment even as I continue to write, paint, and photograph. I see the mean and bitter world that my children and grandchildren will face, and I am so sad for them — I have not made a dent in their potential for happiness, my words have not opened doors for them, and the forces operating in the world today are diminishing their chances for fulfillment and happy lives.
We all lead lives of quiet desperation
Instead, I believe they will lead lives of quiet desperation in a world that is decaying beneath their feet and above their dreams. I am powerless to change the course of their paths. Everything I thought I was working toward has turned to ashes — I cannot list a single personal accomplishment beyond earning money that made any difference to those I love or those who are my friends or those I worked for — and my mediocrity is nothing better than chaff in a strong wind of the storms to come.
And yet I continue to write, to shout into an echo-less and unforgiving wilderness, because writing is all I know how to do. Happiness has nothing to do with it. Nor should it.