Life is Good?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 7, 2007
I remember one of these “ah-ha!” moments, an epiphany of sorts, from my own experience. It took place what must be almost twenty years ago now. I was minister of the UU church in Rockland, Maine at the time, and I was returning from our denomination’s general assembly, sometime in late June. For the sake of me, I can’t remember which general assembly it was, or from where I was returning. It might have been Little Rock, or it might have been Spokane; I can’t remember. I know I was flying back to meet Elizabeth and the children (only two of them back then, probably) who had been staying with family in Rhode Island while I traipsed off to some exotic place like Little Rock.
It had been (thankfully) an uneventful flight, and it was almost time for landing. The plane descended gradually through the clouds, light wispy sprays of cumulus, I think. As the plane pitched in its final descent, I looked out the window, and the sun shone on the clouds, and they glowed almost iridescently, and the sky above the clouds was the bluest blue I had ever seen, and in the distance there were bands of darker blue, and even deep purple. Below, as the plane descended, I saw several small islands, then a larger one, in a wide and open bay; and I could discern the white caps, and then small boats, just tiny specks, cruising along—and they became larger and clearer as the airplane descended.
Then, there was the first view of land: green, lush fields, and soft, cascading hills; and a meandering river.
It was an enchanting site. And I felt glad to be alive.
Then, I saw a building down below, and I recognized it. It was the Rhode Island state capitol building.
Then it dawned on me in that instant, that this place that had enchanted me—this setting I was seeing, as though for the first time, with such rarified vision, as a sort of new Shangri la—was Providence. Old, gray, down-in-the mouth Providence, Rhode Island (in the days before its much-heralded “renaissance”, I would remind you): a city in which I had spent many days of my younger life, and had looked upon often. Though never descending through the clouds, illuminated by the sun, on a late afternoon in early summer.
I learned in that moment the profound truth that the angle from which you look at something changes it completely. It is a truth (and a story) that has stayed with me since.
As it is with Providence, so it is with life.
Bert and John Jacobs are a couple of brothers who were born and raised in Needham, and who led pretty unremarkable lives for a time. They were both college graduates, but couldn’t find work in their fields—so they tried their hands at substitute teaching for a while; they spent a little more time doing other jobs on occasion, as well. Finally, in 1989, they decided to start making t-shirts, which they sold door-to-door, and on street corners in Boston and elsewhere. The Boston Police used to chase them away when they tried selling them in the toney environment of Newbury Street. They had better luck on college campuses throughout New England. But business was still pretty tough, and on many nights, they slept in the back of their van, as they traveled from school to school.
Then, in 1994, the got their Big Idea. One day, John scrawled a beret-wearing smiley face in chalk on a wall, He called the guy “Jake”, and over the face he printed the words “Life is good.” His brother, Bert, said it would make a good t-shirt. So they printed up 48 of them; they sold out at a street fair in New Hampshire within an hour or so; and the brothers Jacobs knew they had Chanced upon a good idea.
How good, they couldn’t even begin to imagine. From that simple etching, a $50 million a year business has flourished. Jake—and his dog, Rocket—and the “Life is good” logo is now emblazoned on t-shirts, and hats, and blankets, and coffee mugs, and Frisbees, and key chains, and dog dishes and all other kinds of stuff. They are sold all around the world. Now, the Jacobs brothers even have a design center and retail store on Newbury Street—the same place where they used to get chased away by the Boston Police.
Why are they successful? Perhaps it’s because of the simplicity of their design and the straightforwardness message, no doubt. It’s also because people hunger for something positive. They are drawn to it. “The media are tremendously focused on what’s wrong with our world,” Bert Jacobs says. “Nobody has an opportunity to focus on what’s right.”
So, accentuate the positive, they thought. Life is good. But is it?
“Life is difficult,” says Scott Peck, in the reading from The Road Less Traveled we shared earlier. If we are honest, we must acknowledge that we have all witnessed firsthand many of life’s difficulties. “Bad news is a fact of life,” no less an ebullient figure than the Dalai Lama—hardly a compulsive whiner-- has written. “Each time we pick up a newspaper, or turn on a television or radio, we are confronted by sad tidings. Not a day goes by, but somewhere in the world, something happens that everyone agrees is unfortunate.”
Life is full of tragedies, and one has to be blind, or demented, not to see many of them. In one of Pearl S. Buck’s novels about China, there is a young girl who is, obviously, completely mentally ill. She is totally cut off from life, and goes through all her days trapped in an imbecilic stupor of perpetual happiness. No matter what happens, she has a smile on her face. She always laughs; she sings little songs to herself all day long, even in the face of the worst possible news. When asked about her daughter’s condition, her mother will say only: “All her thoughts are happy ones.”
If we go through life refusing to name the pain, seeking to deny all the real problems and tragedies and afflictions great and small that life will inevitably deal us, then it seems to me that this is the kind of “happy-happy” charade we’ll be living.
As James Branch Cabell put it, “An optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible words, and the pessimist fears that it’s true.” Or, as Albert Schweitzer once said, “An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while the pessimist sees only the red light. The truly wise person,” Schweitzer said, “is colorblind.”
The pessimist is the one who looks both ways when crossing a one-way street. The optimist is the one who says, “I want to live forever. And thus far, my plan is working out just fine!” Life is good.
Of course, there are numberless real tragedies in life. There are innumerable challenges. Every silver lining has its own cloud, and life is littered with the detritus of unintended consequences. (Did you enjoy the near-70-degree temperatures—in January-- yesterday? Wasn’t it a joy to be outside—a joy to be alive on a day like that? Just wait till the polar ice cap melts—that will be a real picnic!) There are countless injustices in this world of ours—too numerous to list.
Life is good. And life is hard. And everything we have in this life will be, sooner or later, taken from us. Which is why the Buddha boiled it down to: “All life is suffering” (which is probably not a slogan that would sell too many t-shirts). Everything in this life is impermanent, the Buddha taught. Nothing lasts. Everything changes, and every thing is change. “This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds,” the Buddha is said to have taught. “To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance: A lifetime is like a flash of lightening in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten,” the Psalmist wrote, “and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
Or, as the old hymn goes: “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day.” Our lives are as transient as autumn clouds.
But there are different ways to look at clouds, you know.
Throughout the living of our days, we’ve looked at clouds—and at life—from both sides now. And the angle from which we look at something changes it completely.
Albert Einstein was, obviously, a great believer in the power of science. He knew that science could tell us so much about this universe in which we live: how old it is; how vast it is; the laws of physics that control it. But science could not answer the most important question of all, Einstein said. That was the question: “Is the world a friendly place or not?” Does the world support human hopes and aspirations? Is life good? That was a question for religion to answer, Einstein believed; a question for us to ponder in the depths of our spirits.
In her book, The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris writes: “I go to church because I need to be reminded that love can be at the center of all things, if we only keep it there.” Or, as Mary Oliver says it: “There is only one question: How to love this world.”
Loving the world—loving life—affirming that life is good—may seem simple enough.
But it can be terribly difficult to do when we live at a time, and in a culture, which, as one writer has put it, “neglects, rejects, abuses, and destroys our planet as well as many of the creatures who inhabit it.”
It can be terribly difficult, too, when we succumb to that plague of pessimism that infects our culture. “Listen to any broadcast,” Paul Harvey writes, “pick up any newspaper. Records are crashing, it is the worst wind or the worst fire or flood or earthquake or whatever because noise makes news....And one gunshot makes more noise than a thousand prayers. That does not mean that it is more important-- just that it sells more newspapers. The heads of all the major television networks understand this basic fact, and they make sure that news broadcasts are chocked-full of noise, right down to the weather report, when the performing meteorologist warns that the winter temperature isn’t just 0 degrees [as if that wasn’t cold enough, but that] the ‘chill factor’ is 40 degrees below!” (That was in a winter before this one, to be sure!)
I’m not saying that we should live in denial about the problems and challenges of this world. I’m just saying that maybe we should acknowledge them—and face them—and tackle them—out of an attitude of abundance and not of scarcity; of hope and not despair; from an attitude of joyful expectation and profound gratitude for this life we have been given.
Even at those times of loss and despair, when life seems bleak, life has this way of conspiring to keep us in the game: of offering us those new possibilities which the next moment offers. The food we eat; the water we drink; the sun which warms us; the rain that falls; the winds that blow; the earth which brings forth food—all these are vibrant testimonies to the gifts of the universe which support our life in every single moment. Evolution itself is a profound affirmation of the ultimate goodness of life. It has taken all of us somewhere around 14 billion years (give or take a couple of billion) to get us to this moment. That’s a lot of time invested in all of us. So maybe we should invest a little more of our time in helping one another.
“I have to be an optimist because I am still alive,” the late James Baldwin said (back when he still was).
Who can be alive, truly, in the present moment, and not be amazed, and not be hopeful-- at the blood coursing though our veins; at the breath of life inhaling and exhaling from us; at the music of the wind and the birds and the songs of the trees; at the shining sparkle in the eyes of a friend; in the magical twinkle in the smile of the one we love?
Who can look upon these things—and so many more!-- and ponder them, and not affirm: Life is good.
That’s with a period. Maybe even with an exclamation point. No question mark:
Life is good.