I love that slogan “Life is Good.” Do you know the one I mean? You see it all over on golf towels, T-shirts, coffee mugs—all kinds of places. And it’s typically accompanied by one of those silly little stick guys with the smiley face climbing mountains, camping, or just drinking coffee with a big my-toothbrush-is-stuck-in-my-mouth-sideways smile.
My wife, daughter and I recently visited Boston on spring break and stumbled across a Life is Good store. I got out-voted when it came to choosing between shopping or going to a Boston Red Sox game. So, I figured I’d make the best of the shopping thing and check out the Life is Good store to see what it was like.
As we meandered through the narrow aisles stocked full of Life is Good slippers, underwear, and posters, I must admit I got caught up with the whole Life is Good frenzy. Bert and John Jacobs, the guys who dreamed up the whole thing, would be proud of me and the hundreds of other shoppers trying to grab a piece of the good life and take it home right there in the middle of Boston in their humble store.
Before I knew it, we were buying Life is Good T-shirts for my three sons, and a Life is Good dog collar for our Golden Retriever. I’m proud to say I passed on the $50 Life is Good dog bowl—my wife said it wasn’t on sale.
But, I did cave in and buy one of those overpriced Life is Good T-shirts for myself. It was oatmeal color, had a little orange stick-figure runner on it smiling like he just won the Boston Marathon. Behind the pencil thin runner were two stick figure green pine trees sprouting up from the bottom of the shirt and the “Life is Good” motto emblazon across the chest.
Maybe it’s silly, but when I tried that shirt on in the dressing room I felt good about the world and myself. It proclaimed my identity as a runner and someone who loves the outdoors. And best of all, it reminded me that despite all the tough stuff in life, all is fundamentally well.
After I paid for the Life is Good T-shirt, I asked the clerk if I could wear it out of the store. I wanted to strut my stuff along the streets of Boston wearing my overindulgent Life is Good T-shirt like I was something special.
As I walked the Boston streets, my chest puffed out as the little stick man on my shirt proclaimed his tidings of good news to the Bostonians I passed. As the afternoon of shopping wore on, however, my thinking turned more serious. I began to ponder what this whole Life is Good thing is all about.
“Life really is good,” I thought to myself as I traced back over all the gifts God has given me. I have food and shelter, people who love me, a steady job, and a handful of friends. I am blessed.
But, despite all the gifts God has blessed me with, sometimes I get mad at life when it sends me some of those raw deals we all experience from time to time, like having to work so hard every day to make a living and support my family. After thirty-three years of working ten-hour days for my daily bread, I get tired of all the downtown aggravation dealing with rude and impatient people who need to go back to kindergarten and learn to play nice.
I get frustrated dealing with mean people like the AT&T lady on the phone the other day who put me on hold for 30 minutes while I was trying to call and straighten out my phone bill; who, after I waited all that time listening to canned music, came back on the line and said, “I’m sorry. I’ll have to transfer you to another department to handle your request.” Then she threw me back on hold before I could even ask how long I would need to wait this time. How rotten is that? I tell you, I don’t think life is good when that kind of stuff happens to me.
For the most part I can handle the little stuff like rude people and cranky phone operators even though it aggravates me sometimes. But the tough stuff that really makes me question whether life is good is the stuff money can’t fix.
Like my friend Pat, who after retiring at age 56 recently learned he has throat cancer. Just when he and his wife had begun travelling like retired folks do, he’s facing the battle of his lifetime. Struggling with chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he’s learning how to talk with a tracheotomy tube.
That’s the stuff that’s hard to swallow. It makes me want to go right back to Bert and John’s Life is Good store and demand a refund because they lied. “How come Pat has to get throat cancer?” I rail at God. “He didn’t do anything wrong. In fact he’s one of the nicest guys I know—one of my mentors and friends— a hero.”
Sometimes when stuff like that happens, I need to really yell and kick angrily at God and tell him that sometimes life is not good. In fact, sometimes life really stinks and I’m registering my complaint with the management (as if that would make a difference and change everything). Yet, somehow it does change things when I kick and scream at God. It helps me get the anger outside of myself so it doesn’t linger as resentment. It’s good for my soul to lay it on the line with God and let him know what I think because it changes me.
My wife calls it “venting.” I know this getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings stuff violates the man rule that says guys can’t be emotional. They just need to suck it up.
I learned that rule from my eighth grade football coach when a gorilla-sized linebacker pounded me into the ground in the middle of a City League championship football game. He must have weighed over 200 pounds and I swear he should have graduated from grade school years ago.
As I lay there on the ground after he punched out my lights, I heard Coach shouting at me like a junkyard dog, “Suck it up, Plachta!” I knew what Coach meant—real men don’t cry. And so, even though I couldn’t breathe and felt like I had just been hit by a semi-truck and just wanted someone to hold me and tell me I was going to be okay, I didn’t cry. I just stood up, wiped off my tears with grass-stained hands and pretended I really liked getting the daylights knocked out of me.
But, I won’t suck it up anymore. I’m learning that we need to get in touch with our feelings, not stuff them. Feelings are road signs that point to a deeper voice inside of us that has a lot to teach us. It’s okay to get mad at times. Okay to cry—even rail at God. Vent. It’s all part of being perfectly human. In fact, there are pearls underneath those feelings that are inviting us to push past the hard shell of life, open up, and discover that the experiences we’re going through are our teachers.
When I visited my friend Pat in the hospital shortly after my wife and I returned from our trip to Boston, Pat’s wife Mary was sitting in the chair next to him holding his hand as we entered the room. Mary sat quietly in the chair gazing at Pat, their eyes filled with love, compassion, and fear.
He had just returned from surgery earlier that day where they tried to remove some of the cancer and ended up deciding all they could do was remove his voice box and treat the remaining cancer with chemotherapy and radiation because the tumor was too close to his spine. Pat lay upright in his starched white hospital bed with the tracheotomy tube protruding from his throat.
Despite the mechanical apparatus invading his body, Pat looked peaceful. Calm. His smile filled the room with acceptance.
Perhaps all the drugs they had pumped him up with to block the pain caused his smile, but I think it was more because Mary was sitting next to him holding his hand. Her silent vigil of love at Pat’s bedside, her witness to Pat’s courage as he faced his struggle, spoke volumes to me of what unconditional love—through the good times and the bad times—is all about.
As I sat quietly beside Pat’s bed, the thought occurred to me that maybe suffering is a natural part of life. Maybe it’s part of the human condition. And more importantly, maybe suffering has meaning. Maybe life is good even in the midst of our pain because it is often through suffering that we grow and mature.
Pat’s suffering is teaching him to have courage and deeper faith in God. It’s healing the rift that had developed between Pat and Mary since his retirement as they were forced to dig deep and walk together through this new passage of life. Suddenly, everything had shifted in Pat and Mary’s life at the thought of losing each other and they had to choose to embrace a deeper love to get through this challenge together. And in their choosing to love at that deeper level, they’re finding joy is sometimes packaged with sorrow.
Pat’s suffering also has meaning for me in many ways. It’s showing me we can get through anything in life if we have faith and a positive attitude. His courage and optimism as he faces this danger shows me that I need to accept life on life’s terms and do the best I can with what life has dealt me. Even my decision to go and see Pat and Mary despite all the work that had piled up on my desk during spring vacation reminded me that life is not about just me—it’s about being there for others when all they need is your gentle presence to help them rediscover hope.
As I watched Pat communicate by writing to Mary with a pencil on his note pad, I thought back to my father’s death from cancer some forty years ago. My dad was 56 when he died, the same age as Pat. I was 17. Now at age 57, I’m learning to come to a deeper peace and understanding of my father’s loss—a loss that has shaped and formed much of my adult life. Watching Pat deal with his cancer with acceptance and courage, I realized I have the same choice to make Pat does as I square up once again with the re-occurring father wound within in me.
Like Pat, I have to choose between feeling incomplete, fearful, and angry about the childhood loss of my father—or to use the suffering to come to the deeper truth that my life is trying to teach me.
Peggy Noonan in her book titled, John Paul the Great, a biography of the late Pope John Paul II, describes the early years of John Paul’s life. When he was seven, his mother died. Six years later, when he was thirteen, his only brother died. Then at age twenty, as John Paul worked in Nazi-held Poland as a factory worker by day, secretly studying to become a priest by night, his father died.
According to Noonan, it was at that moment in John Paul’s life, at age twenty when he stood at his father’s grave completely alone, that he had to make a choice. He could look back at all the death he had experienced in his young life and lose hope as a result of the losses he was forced to endure, or he could seek the much deeper spiritual truth that he was not alone—that God was still with him and would help him use the suffering to create the courage and strength within him to accomplish great things. Somewhere inside of John Paul that day he must have dug deep and chosen to listen to the wisdom beneath his experience, trusting it would lead him to joy.
Maybe there’s a common thread woven within human suffering. And that thread, which I can now see through my time-tested heart, is simply this: suffering has meaning because it shows us how strong and powerful we really are and what an immense capacity we have to give and receive love unconditionally. And when we choose to trust ourselves and the grace within us, suffering becomes a pathway to joy that surpasses all understanding.
Richard Rohr in his book, Falling Upward, calls this joy the “bright sadness”—the acceptance of the harsh reality of life and our soul’s deeper knowing that no suffering or hardship can overcome us.
I have struggled for years with my father’s death. It has haunted me like a ghost—taunting me with the fear that I am not strong enough to handle life’s challenges without my father to lean into. At times I have searched desperately for a substitute father figure expecting to find strength from other men—always disappointed when they could not give me something, which I can only find within myself.
Sometimes in unholy prayer I have shaken my clenched fist demanding that God return my father to me. At other times, I have reached for false gods to try and ease the pain.
Gradually, in the second half of life, which Rohr calls the season of the sacred journey, I realize I’ve been invited to the deeper truth that my father’s death has shaped me into the man I am: strong, loving, and able to endure life’s storms and survive because of grace.
And more often these days, instead of raising my fist and railing at heaven, I find myself talking to my father man-to-man as if he was there sitting right next to me in the wingback chair in which he died. And if I listen quietly and closely enough, I discover his voice is still in my heart as a whisper. Sometimes when I hear his voice, I begin to cry. The tears, though still stained with pain, are no longer tears of sorrow. They’re becoming tears of joy, and gradually I’m learning to understand and accept that life really is good.
When we hold in our hands the black and white of our conflicting emotions, open our hearts to grace, and let God combine the feelings with Wisdom, the color of gray emerges, painting our lives with rich hues of Divine insight and guidance.