When You Look in the Mirror of Life

I once heard it said that your life can be one of two things: an inspiration or a cautionary tale. (Spoiler: ultimately, you don’t get to decide which one it is. You can only try to influence the outcome) Looking back over my own life, it could have gone either way-still could. It doesn’t take much of a push in either direction to drastically change the direction of your life, and it can happen any time as long as you draw breath. The problem is, there are so many voices telling you so many things, it’s hard to figure out who is worth trusting. Listen to the wrong one and you become the cautionary tale.

I would love to tell you about my dad, except it would all be hearsay, fiction or lies. My dad walked out on our family when I was about six. Left the building; split; bailed out without a word. I heard from him once after that, a brief phone call on my twelfth birthday, and that was it. I found out third hand he died several years ago out in Washington state somewhere. The only thing close to an explanation for his leaving came several years later from my mom. According to her, he told my grandfather that he didn’t love her anymore (and by extension, us, I suppose). I guess that was the case with his first wife and my two half-sisters as well (we’ve never met). I don’t know about wives #3 and #4, although I think the last was with him when he died.

I didn’t think about him much growing up. When I reached adulthood and had sons of my own, I thought I would have liked to see him just once more, to introduce his grandsons and let him know I turned out all right. Sadly, we never had the chance. I don’t know that it would have made much of a difference. I heard he put out the word at my Grandma Stilwell’s funeral that he wanted to see his kids once more, but none of them were interested; I wasn’t there. I should have been angry with him for what he did to us, which would have been my ‘right’, but the only emotion I’ve ever been able to muster is pity. As far as I’m concerned, he wasted his life chasing things he thought might make him happy, but in the end, he missed out on the only things of real value he left behind-his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids. And that’s a tragedy.

The major influence in my life growing up was my mother’s father, my grandfather. My mother hated it when I said that, because she always thought it should have been her. As much as I loved her and appreciated everything she did for us, it was my grandfather who largely helped me become the man I am. He was a Church of Christ minister for many years, and in the absence of a father became my male role model. He was a man who lived what he taught, was the very opposite of self-seeking, but quietly made a huge difference in hundreds of lives. Growing up listening to his sermons, Bible lessons, and everyday wisdom kept me mostly out of trouble. But it didn’t keep the darkness completely at bay.

There’s an old Cherokee legend; I’m sure you’ve heard it, about two wolves, one white and one black, who live inside each of us, and are constantly at war with one another to be the master of us. We determine the outcome: it depends on which wolf we feed. It is the difference between living a life which inspires others and one that becomes the cautionary tale. You get to make the choice. Will you master your darker side or simply give in to it?

I am very much an image of my grandfather; but I am also my father’s son. To my shame I admit there were times in my life when I considered following some of the darker paths of my father, drawn, no doubt, by the same allurements he had. Thankfully, my white wolf had been so well fed that a stronger Spirit and faith overcame those darker urges. The dark wolf is still there, and he lets his presence be known from time to time, but not so often and not so loudly. But he’s not gone completely, because I’m not. He will be with me as long as I live. But when I sense his presence, I can choose not to listen to his howling.

I never used to give much thought to these things, because I always assumed I’d have time to correct and overcome all the stupid mistakes, embarrassments, and shame of my younger life (once I finally realized how stupid, embarrassing, and shameful they were). Thankfully, that has been the case. But it might not have been. As I get closer to the end than the beginning, I am compelled to pass on a bit of learned wisdom. Don’t assume you’ll always have another day. Don’t waste the one you have on self-satisfaction and empty activities that don’t nourish your soul. If you are blessed enough to enjoy many years of life, you will come to the end of them, look back, and realize your life was a waste that no one will remember, or worse yet, will remember with hatred, scorn or pity.

One last thing: as you are deciding what to feed your white wolf, make sure it’s something nourishing. Self-help affirmations are junk food. They make you feel good for a while but don’t provide what you really need. Human wisdom and philosophy might be a little better, but still doesn’t provide strength and growth. What you need is the wisdom given by the One who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” There is nothing better to feed your spirit and keep the dark wolf at bay.

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