Unsettling times occupied his mind. Racial confrontations, pandemic, and a polarizing election all flooded his brain and squeezed out the good thoughts, the ones that kept him satisfied and sane. Turning on the news had become a masochistic act, seeing empty parking lots at airports and schools evoked involuntary winces. The trajectory of life seemed altered.
The man stood in his yard, watering the plants his wife had asked him to drench. There's something mesmerizing about the movement of water, he thought. Waterfalls attract crowds. Flowing streams provide comfort. Even garden hoses can massage a corner of the brain. Mist floated from the sprayer in the man's hand, creating faint rainbows as the water gently coated the garden. It was entrancing and his mind clicked into a different time, a glimpse of something he'd barely remembered.
Glimpses come as masked incantations, spirits provoking an involuntary response to see something that wasn't. Think about it. We often wonder, if even just for a few seconds, about the choices we've made. It's not that we always wish for something different, it's that we wonder where we'd be if we'd gone left instead of right, up instead of down. We wonder where that trail might have led. What if I had taken that other job? Attended a different school? Married my college sweetheart?
It's easy to recognize the choices that have become part of the family lore. The man thought about the night he met the woman who would become his wife. They met at a young wedding, right after college. It was Christmas time, the skies alive with color and hymns. Everything about that night was perfect for a chance meeting that would create a lifetime.
But what if one of those ingredients had been missing? What if the wedding had been on a hot July night? What if his wife had decided to stay home? Would they be together today?
Then there are those times when something devastating happened, but it ultimately led to something wonderful. Lost jobs feel awful, but that creaking noise in the background is the window of opportunity slowly opening. Parking tickets and hangovers epitomize self-inflicted failure, but there are lessons to be had when we do things that cause discomfort and we face those consequences. In the end, failure--when used properly--creates energy. The energy to move forward and find a finest moment. The energy to seek better.
Sometimes, the man thought, glimpses allow us to look far ahead. That's when true maturity kicks in, when we understand cause and effect. That fact doesn't deny the unknown variables in life, it simply offers appreciation of the unknown and a bet against them. Entrepreneurs revel in that thought, constantly weighing risk and reward on unforgiving scales, wagering that their plan is going to find a successful result. If I do this, where will I be in 10 years, 20 years? If I make this move right now, where will I end up?
Glimpses usually don't last long and rarely provide more than just food for thought, a quick bit of mind candy to sweeten the synapses firing in our heads. But sometimes we're able to really dig in and see the path we've traveled in the world and the cities we've built along the way.
In popular culture, this is epitomized by George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." In literature, it's Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." In real life, it's the stanzas written by family and careers, friendships and accomplishments.
The man thought about what he was doing before the pandemic, before the world paused and the arguing turned remarkably uglier. A strange sense of nostalgia swept over him. He thought about shaking hands with new friends, hugging old ones. He thought about concerts and parties and wading into a crowd relishing the crush of anonymity within. He thought about how simple education seemed to be back then.
But glimpses aren't good if all they do is provoke an empty feeling, a sense of discouraging exhaustion. That's really not a glimpse at all, but its sinister twin, regret. Glimpses are meant to frame the present day properly in order to better understand the origin stories we all own and reveal the paths that lay ahead.
The man blinked a few times and came back to the task at hand. He waved the garden hose, allowing the spray to reach every green leaf unfolding in reception of moisture. Water flows so freely, he thought. It obeys only the recipe requirements of hydrogen and oxygen and the laws of gravity.
But in any stream or river, creek or ocean, if we look underneath, we see the obstacles the water avoids or overwhelms. We see the shape of the landscape beneath. We see the carving, the honing that each inch of ground has undergone as a result of water's movement through time. These extraordinary days have highlighted that fact and made it plainer than ever. Challenges persist, opportunities remain, we march on.
That's life. That's being present. That's finding oneself within a glimpse.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.