A black raven took flight, flapping its wings with a strong burst into the wind. The old man looked up at the bird, knowing that it was probably off to pick at some open trash bin somewhere – mundane, filthy, and absolutely essential for that bird to live. Even so, the sight of the bird spreading its wings to fulfil the purpose they were built for was a sight still good to see. That is when he saw the dejected young man walk up, with his hands shoved in his pockets, head bowed down a bit, and shuffling along slowly before depositing himself at the other end of the bench the old man was sitting on.
“Rough day?” asked the old man. “Rough life”, said the young guy with a rueful grin at the old man, the kind which was directed at everything and nothing. “I suppose it’s easier when I’m your age. Provided I get to live to be your age.”
“Oh, you will”, said the old man, with the polite smile old people reserve for a kindred spirits much younger than themselves, and yet living a life as difficult and confusing as the ones they themselves have lived. “So, what’s making you look so dejected, if you don’t mind me asking?”
The young man responded with an exhalation of breath the old man was all too familiar with, that being the unspoken, universal response for ‘Where do I start’. So the old man did what he knew would help – he kept quiet, while looking at the young, troubled fellow, less than half his age.
“Well”, began the young man, “I’ve recently tried to bring about some changes in my life, starting with my job, and a few other things I desperately need to sort out – only, it isn’t working out the way I thought it would. For one, the thing I’m trying to do seems so difficult that I find myself trying to find excuses not to do it. My life – at least to me – is an absolute mess. I’m twenty seven, and I’m nowhere close to being where I thought I would be at this age, when I thought about it six or seven years ago. I see my friends settling down into comfortable lives, even if they are routine, and one part of my mind keeps telling me that’s probably what I don’t want, and the other part says that’s probably exactly what I need.”
The old man sat silently, letting the young boy – for at his age, anyone short of forty was a boy – let it out at his own pace. He knew the ‘boy’ would run out of things to complain about soon enough, and that thought brought a quiet chuckle, which he kept down so as not to make the lad feel worse.
“I’ve come to realise one thing, though”, continued the young man. “It’s dangerous to dream big, in some ways. Because when you do, you always keep wishing and hoping for better and better, and sometimes – well, most of the times – it’s just not possible. Because there really isn’t enough room to do everything you’ve always wanted. And that is unsatisfying in an almost physically painful way, because a guy sets out to live out the life he wanted, and is handed a life that is nowhere close to how he imagined it would be. And that’s something I wish somebody could tell me the answer to! How do I convince myself I’ll do something or the other when there’s so much I’ve told myself I’d do and never did?”
The old man nodded, cleared his throat, and asked, “Why do you believe that you need to ‘convince’ yourself of anything? Has it ever struck you that if you need to ‘convince’ yourself, it probably isn’t good enough?”
The young man, befuddled now, said, “I don’t think I understand what you mean…?”
“You don’t have to understand me, son. It’s yourself who you need to understand”, said the old man with a smile. “Think about this. Ten years ago, at age seventeen, did you want to do something that doesn’t really hold much value for you now?”
“Actually, yes. I have faced that. There was this one thing I had intended to do which I ended up never doing, but yeah, you’re right. I don’t really feel like doing that anymore”, replied the lad, looking at the old man with eyes that were now fully absorbed in seeing things in a way he hadn’t looked at in before.
“I can’t tell you with absolute certainty that this is what is right”, continued the old man. “No one can. But what I can tell you is this: there’ll be plenty of tough spots in your life that will probably make the fix you’re in right now look easy in comparison. You’ll have highs and lows and ups and downs and most of all that is going to come from directions that you will least expect. But chances are, so will all the good things. You know why we can’t see the future? Because we haven’t made it yet. You may think you’re confused right now, but the clarity with which you described what you feel your main worry is, makes me feel otherwise. Stick to that.”
“So what do you suggest?” asked the young man, his doubts about himself not gone yet, showing as they were on his face.
“Nothing. I suggest nothing, except that you live. If you feel you’re doing something wrong, do it anyway. See it through to the end, just so you know if it was wrong or right. But don’t hold back from doing something because you felt you wouldn’t make it through successfully. Because – and I’m sure you already know this – whatever it is that you feel like saying or doing, however many things there may be, just wake up in the morning, eat your breakfast and get down to it. You’re not a reincarnation of the Buddha, so yes, whatever doubts each situation brings will persist one way or another. You will hold some regrets, of having done this, or not having done that – maybe not having tried hard enough. Let those be lessons and not wounds you carry, otherwise they’ll fester and not let you be comfortable in your skin. There is no way you can do everything that you plan to do, and there is also no guarantee that whatever you do, you’ll do right. But beyond a point – you can believe this for a fact – beyond a point, beyond a stretch of time that you live, all irrelevancies will go away, and it’ll leave you with what’s most important. Do you remember any of the number of times you’ve cut, nicked and scraped yourself through school, or do you remember your mother always being there afterwards?”
The young man smiled – a real smile this time, as the gravity of the statement struck him along with the levity of the description. “You know my answer to that”, he said.
“That’s what you probably need to do, son. Think as much as you want. Act the way you think is right by you. But honestly, just learn to believe that old adage of ‘Live each day as it comes’. Because that really IS all you get. Ask me, that’s all I’ve been doing for so many years. And while I haven’t always had the best of times, I’ve always known what I’m worth even at my worst. And that has more often than not made the best times feel even better”, said the old man, leaning back on the bench, reflecting on all the struggles in all those years past, of all he had won and lost and lived through. And speaking to this young man seemed to unlock something deep within him too – a strange sense of satisfaction of having made it, of having lived a life which still had a few embers burning in it. So he turned once again to the young man, and said “You’ll make it.” The young man sat a little straighter, breathed a little deeper, and said, “I certainly hope so. That’s all I could ask for.”
The old man looked up, and saw the contrails of an airliner flying high in the upper reaches of the sky, in a place beyond the clouds – and as always, marvelled at mankind, creatures built to live on the ground, for having built something that spread its wings to fulfil a greater purpose. When he looked back, the young man had disappeared, a little like a wisp of smoke, as if he had never existed. The old man shook his head, because he knew the young one did exist. And he looked into the distance, and said to the setting sun, “Oh, you already have.”