Jackson Browne is among my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. Saturate Before Using, his 1972 album is all it took. But that was just the beginning. Two years later, 1974 brought us Late For The Sky, a record I’ll consistently put into my top 3 albums. While his politics aren’t my cup of tea, his talent sure is! Today’s title is a snippet from track 1 of his latest album, Downhill From Everywhere – “Still Looking For Something.” The entire line is indicative of his creativity.
And I knew since I was just little
The sharp edges of the world will whittle
Your dreams down to shavings at your feet
Gonna do my best not to settle
I know it’s gonna test my mettle
Keep my options open, even so I’m hoping
The sharp edges of the world will whittle your dreams down to shavings at your feet.
Will we do our best not to settle? Good question.
Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you. In 1974 I first saw that saying as an album cover by Ian Matthews while visiting Leisure Landing, my favorite record just outside the gates of LSU. Simply put, sometimes you win…sometimes you lose.
That’s how the sharp edges of the world happen. Sometimes you avoid them. Sometimes you don’t. I think Jackson is right though. Mostly, they whittle away. At our dreams and just about everything else we seek. Especially if we don’t fight back. Hard. Every day.
But there are some other parts of the world that aren’t sharp edges. There are some rather pleasant areas of the world that don’t whittle. They foster growth, resilience, and change. Truth be told, the sharp edges that can whittle can also serve to provide those valuable things for us if we’ll leverage them properly. Struggles and sorrows often define us. Much more so than the joyful moments.
After the famed Alabama Crismon Tide football team lost to Texas A&M Aggies, head coach Nick Saban said two things that illustrate the point.
- “Players have to remember how they feel when they don’t have success.”
- “Sometimes the best lessons you learn are when you do have failings.” Saban says it’s human nature to be more willing to learn when you don’t get things right.
It’s not just for college football players. Or their coaches. It’s true for each of us. We need to remember how we feel when we don’t have success. And there’s little doubt that the most valuable lessons are those taught to us by failure.
Two things – the sharp edges of the world that whittle away our dreams and our response to that reality.
Sharp edges are events and circumstances, sometimes the ones resulting from our own behavior, sometimes not. Sharp edges are also people. The people who hate us, who give us no consideration, who show us no compassion, who judge us harshly. So sharp edges might be anything from health concerns, to financial troubles, to grief, to sadness, to sorrow, to struggles of any kind. And they might also be the people who don’t have our best interests at heart. Those folks who aren’t interested in helping us, but would prefer to hurt us.
Whoever you are, wherever you live – you experience both forms of sharp edges of the world. There is no vaccination. Nobody has antibodies that will protect them from such things.
No need to enumerate all the ways the world cuts us with sharp edges. We can all prove that truth with our own lives. Our struggles are real. We don’t often intentionally go looking for the sharp edges. Mostly, we run into them. Or they run into us. But years ago I was reading about various hustlers and con men who start each day at zero, then work like fiends during the day to score big – to get as much money as they can – only to end the day back at zero. These folks are different than most (thankfully). They go out each day looking for the sharp edges, willing to end their day cut to pieces, but only after doing some cutting of their own. These folks refuse to live conventional, responsible lives. Mostly fueled by selfishness and bad habits, they’re enterprising predators who seem hooked on the adrenaline of the sharp edges of the world. Life on the edge makes no allowances for accepting something more mundane.
They’re the sole example that I can think of where the notion could be put forth that the sharp edges of the world don’t whittle away their dreams. But it seems to me that’s exactly what happens, even with these folks. They’re chasing something they’ll never catch. Maybe they even realize it, but they don’t care. It’s not about catching anything, but it’s more about pursuing – and doing it the way they want. Bad behavior is its own reward. Never mind who gets hurt. Never mind if it results in a wasted life. The point is to do what you want as often as possible without regard to anybody else. Judge it as you will. Me? Based on my Christian beliefs, it’s a wasted life where the sharp edges of the world do even more harm than it does to those of us willing to battle our own self-centeredness. Temperance is a benefit.
I’m going out on a limb and assuming anybody listening to me here isn’t heading into the sharp edges of the world because you’re thrilled by it. But if you are, I’d be interested in speaking with you to learn more. It’s a way of life I just can’t understand.
What I do understand – more fully than ever before now that I’m old – is how the sharp edges of the world don’t just beat us down but whittle away at our dreams and our reality. If Jackson’s lyrics were 100% accurate, that dreams were the only fatality of the sharp edges, then that’d be bad enough. But there’s more casualties – reality. Mostly, because we allow it. Not because the sharp edges have more power, but because we give them even more power.
The irony is that those hustlers living by their wits every day, searching for sharp edges, are living a reality of their own making. But so are we – those of us choosing a different path. A more responsible path. A more compassionate path. We’re forming our own reality based on our experiences with the sharp edges. For example, there are times we believe their sharper and more deadly than they really are. And there are times when they seem fatal, but they’re not. Conversely, there are times they don’t seem fatal, but they are. It can be hard to tell.
So much of our lives are choice – how we choose or prefer to see things. What we choose to think, feel and do. The sharp edges of the world aren’t any different except in how we choose to see them. You’ve likely seen many memes like this one…
It’s true. It is all about decisions. But decisions are made based on how we see the world and our place in it.
Hero or victim. Those are the two binary choices I concentrate on because it seems to me there’s no middle ground. We’re either a hero or a victim, or on our way to one or the other. We’re either blaming or taking responsibility. Blamers are victims. Heroes take responsibility.
Compassion and empathy compel me to understand that sharp edges aren’t created equally. Some are way more dangerous – sharper – than others. While the Harbaugh football family mantra is, “Who’s got it better than us? NOBODY” — I know there are families who have a very different mantra but I love the Harbaugh family outlook.
Why did papa Harbaugh roll that way when so many others choose to lament what they don’t have? I don’t know, but I know this – he had a choice in how to raise his kids and lead his family. He choose to see life the way he did and he taught his kids to do the same. Here’s some quotes from an article Jim Harbaugh wrote for The Players’ Tribune on February 1, 2016. He’s the head football coach for the University of Michigan.
I shared a room with my brother for 16 years, and my dad always made us feel like that was the greatest thing in the world. Like we had this whole house, and my brother and I had a special piece of it all to ourselves. Never mind the fact that most kids wanted (and a lot of kids had) their own rooms. We were lucky to share a room. We got to share each other’s stories, each other’s dreams.
“Who’s got it better than you guys?!”
That’s how it was in our house. A lot of excitement. A lot of competition. A lot of love.
Later on we realized, Okay, maybe some people did have it better … But my parents were right about just about everything. It’s staggering how right they were. Maybe having an exciting childhood in a loving home is as good as it gets. And we had that. So how could anybody have it better?
How indeed? All by making a choice of how we’re going to see the sharp edges of the world and protect ourselves from letting them whittle away our dreams. Choosing instead, to let them forge us into people filled with gratitude, determination, and resilience.
Life may be less about trying to dodge the sharp edges of the world – except those we’re responsible for creating due to our own foolishness – and it may be more about knowing that’ll bite us every now and again, but facing them with the thankfulness that things are as well with us as they are, however, well they may be. Thankfulness and gratitude are always the paths forward. Coupled with competing daily to make sure the sharp edges don’t win, but strengthen us so we can!
It’s Saturday morning. Late. Pushing noon. And I’ve got some work to do. Computer work. Website updates. Video editing. Some voice work. General catching up.
I usually do one of two things: a) fire up my iTunes library and don the headphones to listen to whatever strikes my fancy at the moment or b) I fire up the TV here inside The Yellow Studio and find something to watch (well, more accurately, something to be on in the background). Insomnia usually provokes music. Saturday mornings usually provoke TV. Especially during college football season.
Today, I go to Amazon Prime because I’ve been meaning to watch the Val Kilmer documentary, VAL. The one about his life.
My Val Kilmer fandom centers around The Saint. It’s a 1997 movie with Elizabeth Shue. I’m a big fan of hers, too – thanks to that movie. It’s one of the few movies I bought on DVD. I still have it.
I launch the documentary, with subtitles on so I can kinda sorta keep up while doing other things. But within minutes I stop doing anything else. I’m intently watching this thing, narrated by his son because Val recovered from throat cancer which left him unable to speak without the aid of a vibrator attached to his neck.
I Google him because I don’t know how old he is. He’s 61. I’m 64. It’s impossible not to make comparisons. Especially when it comes to health.
He confesses that he was the first person he ever knew to have a video camera. And he used it. A lot. All the time. So much so, that he has boxes and boxes and boxes of videotapes he’s shot through the years. And writings. And scrapbooks. Material chronicling his life, a story he desperately wants to tell. But now he’s not got the voice for it. His son does. A son who looks and sounds like him.
Deep into the movie he’s sobbing as he puts a large necklace belonging to his deceased mother around his neck. Her absence still hits him hard.
His mother divorced his dad when Val was 8. Repeated infidelities took their toll on her. His dad, a real estate developer, wanted to be among the largest landowners in California. So much so that his dad, at one point unable to get a loan, asked Val to co-sign on some massive land deals. Val agreed. He said, without hesitation. Even gave his dad power of attorney, which his father used to form 20 or more shell companies to avoid paying taxes. Until it finally caught up with him.
Facing the prospect of suing his own father or writing a check that would exhaust his personal wealth, Val said:
I wrote the check and went to work.
Should he have? I’m sure many think he should have kept his money and refused to bail out his unscrupulous father. But it was his money to do with as he wanted. From the sound of it, he didn’t deliberate much. He wrote the check, then got back to work to earn more money.
Don’t worry about the money you’re not making. Besides, you’ll earn more.
Focusing On Our Loss & Lack
It’s easy to dwell on our losses and what we don’t have. Easier when the losses and lack are extensive, but it’s not helpful. Okay, it might be helpful if your stupidity contributed to the loss – you wanna make sure you learn not to repeat the mistake. I know ’cause I’ve got a litany of such errors in my wake. The most expensive of them was $50,000. I gave it to a person I thought was a friend. It’s a long story I’d rather forget, but every now and again it bubbles back up and irks me to no end. Mostly, because I was duped by a man who I thought I could trust. I was wrong! He was unscrupulous, dishonest, and a consummate liar. I was stupid! Really…really…really stupid.
But I learned. I’ve not “invested” money with anybody since. I give people money if I can afford to and want to – with no expectation to get it back. Ever. I don’t loan money. Period. I’d never make it as a venture capitalist. 😀 For starters, I’m too poor. For another, I hate losing money.
See what I mean? Focusing on losses stirs up nothing positive! I mean this happened to me many years ago and it still stings even though I absolutely learned my lesson.
Thinking about this compelled me to just now texted the man who “stole” my money. When he asked for it, he promised he’d return it with a reasonable return. He never returned it, even when I told him I didn’t care about any return. I was nice. I was polite. Then I got assertive. Then aggressive. Then I had an attorney draft a letter to him. Nothing.
I think he’s dead, but I’m not sure. I just texted, “Curious how you’re doing?” The person on the other end just replied, “Who is this?” I told them my name and said, “…a blast from the past.” They replied, “Wrong number.” No way to know really.
See what happens when you focus on what you don’t have? You get distracted and it serves no useful purpose. I don’t feel the least little bit better for having remembered my $50K loss.
It’s much wiser to focus on our good favor, fortune, and blessings. For example, I could afford to lose $50K. It wasn’t (still isn’t) an insignificant amount, but it didn’t impact my life. So that’s good.
And it in no way impacts all the great things I’ve got to be thankful for. So I’m best served by letting it go. I mean, if the guy who broke his word and kept the money is dead, well, I’m not impacting him by dwelling on it. And if he’s alive, I’m still not impacting him by getting worked up about it. I’m only hurting myself.
I often use road rage to illustrate the same thing. Somebody cuts us off in traffic and we’re outraged. We can behave foolishly and speed up, tailgate them – or something worse. Really stupid. Or we can just fuss and fume thinking the worst. In either case, we do more injury to ourselves than them. They’re unconcerned about us, completely unaware of how we’re feeling about them (unless we ride their bumper and behave like an idiot).
Who are we hurting here? We’re hurting ourselves. Nobody else gets hurt. So why do we do it?
Because it’s hard to let things go. It can be difficult to write the check and go to work. Maybe by talking about it, and thinking about it we can grow our determination to behave more wisely.
Writing the check can also represent doing the right thing no matter what.
It’s admirable, but something we often wish we didn’t have to do. And we don’t. Have to do it, that is.
Anybody can do the right thing when nothing is on the line. Or when it suits us best.
The best among us do the right thing all the time. Regardless of the circumstances, situation or consequences.
Pride and selfishness are often the culprits. We want what we want and if we have to give something up to do the right thing…we hesitate. Or not. We just refuse. Situations sometimes overpower what we know is right.
I’ve been somewhat fixated on Val’s statement because it represents so much. And over time I realize it has much to do with regret, bitterness, and failing to move past our mistakes. I don’t want those things to characterize me. And betrayal isn’t something I want to focus on.
As Tom Petty sang, “It’s time to move on. It’s time to get going.”
What about when it must be done? Then you absolutely have to do it. No matter what.
I’m on a coaching call and say, “You can do whatever you want.” This executive is weighing options in search of the best one. We hash out the pros and cons of the obvious choices before moving on to the not-so-obvious choices. As I am wont to do, I challenge my client to consider any and every option. Even the ones we tend to think we can’t possibly pick.
I specialize in bold mistakes. -Paul McCartney
I was watching that new documentary with Rick Ruben, famed record producer, and Paul McCartney. In one of their conversations, Paul uttered that quote.
McCartney was often criticized for writing pop, upbeat little love songs while some viewed John Lennon as the more serious songwriter. Paul explains that his viewpoint originated from his good childhood. A childhood he assumed everybody experienced. Paul was, and remains, highly optimistic. Judge him by the songs he authored. “Here Comes The Sun,” is a perfect example.
I watch one of the two remaining Beatles now in his late 70s and he’s got a boyish look to him. Even now. The music of his youth – the Beatles broke up in April 1970. Paul was only 29. The Beatles had been together for 8 years. Here he is listening to Beatles’ tracks with Rick Ruben. They’re dissecting some, commenting along the way as Paul reminisces of recordings made over 50 years ago. His enthusiasm for the songs and those times is evident in his eyes.
John Lennon was a very different man. A different songwriter. A different person who grew up quite differently from Paul. And as a result, John didn’t share Paul’s optimism. His songs reflect the differences. Paul confesses that he just assumed everybody grew up as he did, but John showed him that wasn’t true.
Stories like that are important to this conversation because the real point of it all is “possibility.” Not probability. Not likelihood. Not even practicality. Which is why I love the sentiment about a 4-year-old in a Batman cape.
Kids often do, or dream of doing, what can’t be done. We did it when we were kids. All the time.
We built forts we never thought we could. Treehouses, too.
We imagined we were all kinds of characters, living in completely made-up places. Or real places.
We dreamed of becoming all sorts of things…like writers or cartoonists. 😉 I didn’t really become either one, but my whole life has been influenced by those early dreams.
Friends dreamed of becoming attorneys, veterinarians, doctors, teachers, nurses, or auto mechanics. Did any of them make it? Most likely found something else. Or like me, stumbled into something else.
Today, I’m preoccupied with two narratives. The victim. Or the hero. Which will you be? Which role are you playing right now?