Words to live by as the year winds down

by Jaime O’Neill

I always get apprehensive at the prospect of a new year stretching out ahead of me, with both opportunities and challenges sure to present themselves, and daunting conundrums of every kind certain to test my character.

I no longer make New Year’s resolutions, but I carry a mental and spiritual repair kit wherever I go, a compendium of wisdom containing clichés, aphorisms and truisms to be used as psychic Band-Aids, when needed. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but I think of this stuff as akin to the medicine bags the Plains Indians used to carry, packed with their personal magic, totems against harm, disorder, confusion and the unexpected. Mountain men who had prolonged exposure to Native Americans took to carrying such bags themselves, filling them with a bright stone, an eagle feather, or maybe a tintype of a woman they knew in St. Louis, far back down the Missouri River.

My personal medicine bag is pretty full now, and some of the things in it have served me well, words against the chaos, and salve to the soul. First among my personal resources is the famous serenity prayer, which goes like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s not easy to practice those words; it can be exceedingly difficult to tell the difference between the things you can change and the things you can’t, but learning to accept what cannot be changed is the first building block of sanity.

I also find useful truth in the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that reads: “There is nothing either bad nor good but thinking makes it so.” Though there are surely some things so bad that no amount of thinking can make them better, there’s also stuff we endure that’s really only as bad as we make it out to be. If we rearrange our attitude, we can often reconfigure our own psychic pain.

“Where there’s life, there’s hope.” I read that in a Tarzan comic book when I was maybe 8 years old. Tarzan had been badly mauled by some fierce critter and had climbed up in a tree to recuperate. His chances of survival seemed poor. “Where there’s life, there’s hope” appeared in a thought bubble above Tarzan’s bleeding head.  There have been more than a few times in my life when things seemed hopeless and those words returned to offer encouragement. And hope.

Mark Twain provided several nostrums for my medicine bag, but the one that comes up most frequently is his observation that “worry is interest paid on a debt you may never owe.” I worry less than I once did, but I’m still pretty good at it, and if I should fail to worry enough, my wife will usually remind me of one or two reasons to keep worrying. It’s then I recall Twain’s sage advice, which I also share, tirelessly, with my two daughters.

One of my own pearls of wisdom also made it into my medicine bag, a thought that came to me when my eldest daughter complained that her then-boyfriend was giving her “mixed signals.” My reply to her was: “Mixed signals are clear signals.” It helped her work some things out, and she complimented me on being so smart, but I think I just got lucky when that insight came to mind.

Hardly a day goes by when I’m not reminded of Samuel Johnson’s adage that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Johnson made that observation during the years when this nation was being forged. Since our inception, we’ve been plagued by far too many scoundrels who use ersatz love of country to mask narrow self-interest. Rush Limbaugh and a horde of others leap to mind whenever I think of Johnson’s famous phrase. Limbaugh paid more than a million bucks for Elton John to perform at his fourth wedding, money that the anti-gay-rights scoundrel had originally earned by professing love of country while sowing further division, and doing his country so much harm.

I don’t know what the next year will bring. As scientist Niels Bohr once observed, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” With all that uncertainty, I’m just glad I’ve got so many resources in my medicine bag. So, I’ll sign off with the immortal words of Porky Pig, who said so memorably: “Th-th-that’s all folks.”

Jaime O’Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes in Magalia, California.

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