Last week, with the help of several literary references, I wrote about the ideas of life achievements, mediocrity, and living out one’s life as epilogue rather than story (kudos to Vonnegut, Jr. for coming up with this one). The concluding question was this: if you haven’t achieved the goals you set out for yourself early in life, does that mean you’re living a life of mediocrity? I answered by saying that while you’re life might in fact be mediocre, it needn’t be.
In the film Manchester by the Sea, the lead character played by Casey Affleck is living an epilogue. His life story is over, and now it’s merely a waiting game until the finish line. Though his case might be an overly drastic one, I do occasionally observe people living out their epilogues and doing little to further their life story.
But more often I see the opposite: people doing extraordinary things that might not exactly constitute the lives of grandeur they’d envisioned for themselves decades ago, but are still impressive achievements, significant contributions, or interesting pursuits that give their lives meaning. Hell, on my block alone, we’ve got a man who opened up a toy museum, plays in excess of 100 gigs a year, wrote a book about the Chicago music scene in the 60s and 70s, and collects and sells antique toys worldwide. His life story is far from epilogue even if he isn’t gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.
Four years ago I met a man who learned a trade as a teenager, started his own business in his 20s, raced cars in his 30s, competed in Ironman Triathlons in his 40s, and THEN, at the age of 50, decided that he’d like to learn an instrument. He learned two. I now play keyboards for his classic rock band of 15 years. Oh, and last year he opened up a restaurant in suburban Chicago. Tell me his life is epilogue. Or mediocre. Or anything other than amazing.
Another friend of mine has been called a Renaissance Man. He built his own brick oven in the backyard, brews his own beer, quilts, cooks, plays the flute, builds his own drones, and runs triathlons.
Another buddy memorizes Shakespearean sonnets, studies philosophy in his spare time, plays a wicked violin, taught his daughters their respective instruments (one of whom is going pro), teaches Sunday school, serves on the synagogue Board and runs marathons.
(question: what is it with high achievers running marathons and competing in triathlons. I don’t get it)
The list of people whose lives I admire goes on and on. Average people publishing books, raising money for charity, driving political change, helping those in need, writing songs, building furniture, embarking on amazing home improvement project, traveling to interesting places. There is no shortage of impressive people in our midst. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
As someone who dreamed big as a child, I’ve done a fair bit of analyzing and rationalizing my current state of affairs. Like George Bailey, I haven’t quite achieved what I set out to back in my early 20s. About a decade ago I wrote the following lyric, supposedly for a friend of mine, but in retrospect aimed squarely at me:
(from “Grounded” off of Pause)
The truth be known, my friend
There lies a noble end
But it’s a million miles away from where you’ve been
You’ve been on cruise control
Without a lofty goal
And every day begins and ends and ends where it begins
I believe there is something grand you’re ready to achieve
It’s not so out of reach
There are lesser souls than you to heed the call
My youngest child was about to start Kindergarten, and it was time for me to explore other aspects of my life more fully. I wouldn’t classify my life as anything exceptional, but when I’m feeling a little down about things I recognize that while my life story may not be a bestselling page-turner, it isn’t a dull textbook either. It certainly isn’t epilogue. I’ve accomplished much since writing that self-inspiring lyric.
The reality is epilogue never has to happen, even if you live to be a hundred. And the converse is true as well. The characters of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road were already living epilogue in their 20s.
Learn. Explore. Volunteer. Start a hobby. Help others. Learn an instrument. Love, and experience joy with the ones you love. Learn a craft. Grow something. Learn a language. Have fun with friends. And perhaps most importantly, enjoy the little miracles around you every day. As James Taylor wrote, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.”
Which leads me to the ending of the Monty Python film, The Meaning of Life. Michael Palin says, “Now here’s the meaning of life,” is handed an envelope as if announcing the winner of an award, and says: “Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”
It degrades quickly from there in inimitable Monty Python fashion, but it starts out nice enough!