Like you, I have a few secrets I never tell anyone. But dear readers, there’s one secret I want to tell you. It taught me a great truth:
There’s nothing to fear from failure.
I know this firsthand. I’ve watched my dreams crumble before me like a sandcastle at high tide. My secret is one of those failed dreams.
I was once cast in a big Hollywood movie.
When that happens, people begin to talk. No matter how much you try to keep it under your hat, as soon as one person knows, the secret is out and has a life of its own. I’ve written before about how much I used to look like Bob Marley. What I left out — because it was still an embarrassment, one I didn’t want to be reminded of — is that I was cast to play Bob Marley in a biopic from Warner Bros. It was a movie about the famous singer’s life. And it was just as cool as it sounded.
But obviously, since you’ve never heard of the film, it was never made. What can I say? Hollywood is a fickle place. During pre-production, behind the back of Warner Brothers, Rita Marley sold the entire catalog of her late husband’s music to Disney. Faster than you can say Tuff Gong, it was all gone. The movie, the role of a lifetime, and the buzz about the project; they all disappeared like silence when you speak its name.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to be that close to something you’ve always wanted, something that so many people say you are perfect for, only to have it slip through your fingers. But I don’t have to tell you how it feels. I’m sure you know already, because I’m sure you’ve lost something that matters to you. I’m sure you’ve seen a dream slip away. Or lost a love that you thought would define your life. Or perhaps you made a mistake that ruined your chances of knowing the happiness you were pursuing.
It sucks! No, that’s not strong enough. It doesn’t suck. It feels like living death, like your life force has been sucked out of you. But the thing is … as much as you may suffer in that moment, it doesn’t last. Eventually, your broken heart heals. Your options get better. Your horizon brightens. And you keep going; you keep moving toward new goals, new happiness, and deeper love. The only things that can stop you are death or grave illness.
Of course, it doesn’t feel like that at the time. But I can promise you, it’s true. And the little saying I made up to deal with how I felt when my dream smashed on the rocks of indifference and I needed something to keep going was a simple little phrase, but I’ve told it to a few friends and family when they went through similar difficulties of life and they all found it helped them as well.
Your suffering polishes your soul.
When the Bob Marley movie withered on the vine, I was crushed. I was so sure my whole life was about to change. And it did. Only it changed for the worse. It seemed like everyone I knew had heard about the movie, and now they all wanted to know what happened. They wanted to know why someone they knew wasn’t going to be a big star. Ha! That’s a fun moment, watching the light of excitement extinguish in the eyes of your friends and family. And I had lots and lots of friends and family to tell the story of my failed dream. Awesome.
The point is, that moment of terribly unbearable weakness wasn’t the end. It was just the turning of a page in my life. And from that moment of great weakness, I was reminded how it was actually a distillation of a great strength of mine. I had to tell the story of my broken dream and brush with near-fame to so many people because I had so many friends. And although I was embarrassed to tell the story, I told it. And in telling it, I was reminded of how many people care about me. And that’s my real wealth. Like my health, I’d overlooked what really mattered as I chased the illusion of fame and glory and Hollywood excess.
When Heath Ledger died, a part of me died with him. I loved that guy. He was a tremendous actor. One of the best I’d seen since Brando. And I saw in him what happens to the sensitive when the monster we call fame closes it jaws down around them and swallows them whole. I had a feeling that if they’d made that Bob Marley movie, my life would’ve followed in Ledger’s footsteps. I wasn’t cut out for that sort of life. And most likely, it would’ve killed me. When Ledger died, I knew I’d been really lucky that my movie never got made. It’s funny how life works that way.
You may not have an exact, similar story in your life. But the details don’t matter. It’s the twisting path of life that you and I share. We think we know what we want from the future. We place our faith in the hands of tomorrow and hope that it gives us back what we dream will one day be ours — a job, a house, a partner.
But I can tell you the only thing you can trust the future to bring you is surprises. I call it the great weirdness of life. It’s the only thing I really believe in, and I do so with my whole heart and mind. I’ve found that’s the best way to move from today into tomorrow. And that’s a rad thing to believe in, because it means your future will always be better and stranger than you could ever expect.
Since the failed Bob Marley movie, I’ve endured numerous other failures, some of which I’ve written about, others that I’ve kept close to the vest. But all of them have made me a happier and better person than I imagine I would be had I received what I thought I wanted.
I was an arrogant prick when I was a youngster. Well, that’s not exactly right. I was a very sweet kid. At least, that’s what all the adults who knew me then tell me. They say I was sensitive and kind, curious and funny. Whatever. I buried all of that as life wore down on me. It started when I was a short kid and got bullied. It got worse when my parents divorced and my heart broke with my shattered family.
It got even worse when, on the heels of my parents’ divorce, I went to five different schools in five years. That’s hard on a sensitive, shy kid. But it toughened me up. And I had to get tougher, because things got worse for me, such as when I was one of the only black kids in an all boys’ high school. In my math class, kids would make monkey faces at me. But being the smallest one, it’s not like I could fight them.
I learned to hold my feelings deep inside me. And I learned to use humor as my most ardent defense mechanism. I gravitated toward punk rock and skateboarding. I embraced all the outcast cultures of youth. I’ve known marginalization for as long as I can remember. Obviously, your story may not be the same as mine. But I’m sure you’ve felt bullied, or like an outsider, or disrespected, or perhaps devalued by others. And as crazy as it sounds … be glad you were treated poorly. Because as I said before:
Your suffering polishes your soul.
I can promise you that even after all the mistreatment I’ve faced in my life, all the failures, broken dreams and lost loves, I’m a better person today than I was yesterday.
Naturally, it took me twists and turns to get here. In fact, at one point, just after the economic collapse of 2008, I had to move in with my sister. I’d come home one day and found an auction taking place in the front yard of my house; and that’s how I learned the home I was renting had been foreclosed. The landlords never said a word to me. And so, I scrambled to find a new place to live. This was the second place in a row I had to move from on short notice. Terribly worried about me, my sister insisted I move in with her so I could have some stability in my life.
To do my part while I stayed with my sister, I helped her raise her two small children. And the lessons her children taught me, as I attempted to teach them, brought me full circle. They reminded me of how I was as a boy; and their smiles and laughter and simple love healed all the remaining pain inside me. They taught me to be brave — at first for them, so they wouldn’t be afraid of life, and then for me, so that I might remember to go after what I wanted despite the fact that it sometimes hurts to not get what you want.
Just like Mick Jagger once sang, “If you try sometimes, you just might find… you get what you need.”
And damn if that crazy ass isn’t right. That’s the irony of satisfaction, it’s not what you think you want, it’s what you need. And I needed my niece and nephew to remind me. If I’d gotten that part, I would’ve most likely never lived with my sister and her kids. And I have a strong feeling I wouldn’t even be on this side of the grass.
Life is funny that way. Life is relentless that way. Life will never let you down that way.
It’s almost the holidays, and here in America we have a time-honored tradition. Every year NBC and a few other stations will broadcast the Frank Capra / Jimmy Stewart picture, It’s A Wonderful Life.
I love that movie. When I was living with my sister, I totally related to the George Bailey character. And every year, just like millions of other Americans, I watch it on Thanksgiving and twice on Christmas. It always reminds me of what matters most in life. And I can’t watch it without crying at the end. Every single fucking time. It makes me cry with happiness. I get a wave of feels that begin when George Bailey says, “ZuZu’s petals!” and soon my cheeks are wet and my nose is running. I have the chills now just thinking of it.
To me, It’s A Wonderful Life is the greatest reminder of how a good life feels. We all suffer. The real trick is how you respond.
If you’ve seen the film … watch the clip below and let it remind you:
Your suffering polishes your soul.
If you’ve never seen the movie, don’t watch that clip. I’d hate to deny you the joy of seeing it from the beginning. Here’s the whole movie.