In one moment everything changed, and your life was not the same. A door closed, another door opened, and you started off in a new direction.
A return to the place where that life-changing moment happened can elicit “what if” thoughts, sometimes whimsical but more often maudlin. Memories of the moment remind us that we are all part of the human comedy, an extemporaneous performance of life written by those three Fates named Chance, Circumstance, and Coincidence.
We all have had our moments.
Those of us among the legion of failed athletes are inexorably drawn back to the field, stadium, gym, field house, or track so that we can remember the moment when it all went wrong: the dropped fly ball, the fumble, the missed jump shot, the trip on the hurdle. Inevitably, it was the day the scouts were there to watch you perform, and the moment brought to an end all hopes for the college scholarship, the pro contract, the road to fame and fortune, the Promised Land.
The same is true for those who go back to stand on the darkened stage of the community theater or the concert hall, or peer into the display window of the town’s art gallery or book shop. Reflecting on the moment is even more painful for those who enter the foyer of the building where they were tested and failed to pass the entrance exam, the physical, the vision screening – and the gate to education, profession, career, and life’s vocation swung closed.
Ultimately, these moments would probably not have made any difference. The dreams of youth are “one in a million” fantasies. We found that we could control few of the million variables in the quest to someday don the uniform of a Yankees ball player or the flight suit of a jet fighter pilot or the green scrubs of a neurosurgeon.
We have also learned along the way that the moment of failure can be a blessing. That young man who beat you out for the appointment to the U.S. Military Academy? He stepped on a land mine in Vietnam, lived in pain and suffering six more years, then ended his own life. This was surely not the path of glory you saw yourself walking, and regret of the moment is transformed into something more like relief.
But we were all baptized in our earliest days into the religion of the American Dream that preaches the tenets “if you want it badly enough,” “if you work hard enough,” “if you believe in yourself,” and “if you never give up.” So the crumbling of our youthful aspirations could not simply have been the way of the world; our failure must have been the result of something we did, something wrong with us. Consequently we have a subconscious need to go back to the chapel and repent, repent, repent our frailty.
The moment is the American Dream’s version of original sin, I suppose. You stood in the Garden of Eden, then came the moment, and everything went wrong after that. Psychologically, it’s good to have one waste can that we can throw all the garbage into. Unfortunately, in some lives there is a lot of waste.
A year ago I was egotistical and tactless enough to make light of this idea of the moment while having dinner with a close friend from back in the day, someone with whom I had shared dreams and disappointments, wins and losses, passions and heartbreaks, joys and fears. “Do you ever have those feelings?” I asked him. “That if you could go back and change just one moment, your life would have been all different?”
The look on his face shamed me for being so insensitive as to say this to someone who was fighting a long losing battle with addiction to drugs and alcohol. “Yes,” he said, looking through my head to his own visions of moments that truly were turning points in his life. “Yes, every single day.” Those moments which had only been at the fringe of my life were at the core of his.
I could sense the depth of his regret and remorse. If only we could go back. If only we could do it over. But we cannot. We can go back to the place, but we cannot go back to the time.
One benefit of aging (and there are not many) is that we can take a more forgiving and more realistic view of our lives. I paraphrase a quote by heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali: “A man who looks at the world at age sixty-five the same way he did at age fifteen has wasted fifty years of his life.”
After fifty years, the moments do not seem so devastating anymore. They were an important part of the story, but not the turning points we once thought them to be. We understand now that we have been granted enormous gifts, good fortune, love, happiness and reward. There have been a dozen moments of success and triumph for every moment of failure and dejection. And many of the moments of success have been in the parts of life that really mattered.
So now when I stand in center field of the deserted ball park, it’s good to remind myself that, yes, I dropped the damned fly ball in the summer of 1965, but there were a whole lot of fly balls that I caught. The true “moment” to remember is this: I played the game to the best of my ability, and then went on to do life to the best of my ability.
All it takes is a hug from my granddaughter to remind me that I made it to the Hall of Fame.