Earlier in the day, as the two of them kissed and climbed into their respective cars for the rides to work, she reminded him. “Remember,” she said, “we’ve got that thing at the Sampsons tonight.”
“Right. Have a good day, hon.”
For one brief nanosecond, he had a clear picture in his mind: He’d drive home from work, get a quick shower, and then, he and Julie would go to the Sampsons.
Soon though, NPR and ESPN radio had pushed that picture to a gallery somewhere on the periphery of his brain. It probably didn’t help him keep the picture firmly braced in the main gallery that he didn’t much care for the Sampsons. Or that even Julie had consented to going to their house begrudgingly, as an act of social obligation.
By the time 6:00, when Matt left the office, rolled around, that picture--of going to the Sampsons--was crumpled up in the garbage in the alley behind the gallery. “I bet Julie’d like to eat Chinese tonight,” he thought. A new picture had entered his mind, Julie and him watching Law and Order over egg rolls.
So, after he slid in behind the steering wheel, he pulled out his cell phone to spring his proposed evening activities on Jules. But before he could hit the speed dial, the phone rang. It was Julie. “Could you stop and get a bottle of wine for us to take to the Sampsons?” she asked. Suddenly, the forgotten picture was back in the main gallery, basking in all its hideous glory. “Uh. Sure, Jules. What kind of wine did you have in mind?”
People often tell me that they’re not creative or imaginative in any way. “I’m no visionary,” they say laughingly. But that isn’t true. One of the things that most distinguishes our species from the others on this planet is that we all have these pictures in our minds. We have a remarkable capacity to envision the future, be it the evening ahead or what we want to do for retirement.
Some of our pictures have been painted by others and imposed upon us. Others of our own composition enslave us and keep us from being all we could be. Some annoy us and some inspire. Some excite us and lead us to do wonderful things.
Often, in trying to bring our pictures to life, other things come our way, things far better than we pictured. As a young man, for instance, I always pictured myself waiting to marry until I was about 29 or 30. But then this young woman, who I'd first met when I was in the sixth grade, re-entered my life and there I was, standing at the altar at the age of 20. We celebrate our thirty-first anniversary next week.
Our pictures, it should be said, can also delude us. Back when my son was in middle school, I coached his rec league basketball team for three long years. How long were they? We went 0-33 during those three years. A kid on the team was short, slow, a poor shot, and a lousy ball handler. At the end of season 3, I took the boys out for pizza and I asked each of them, one by one, “What sort of work do you want to do as an adult?” This particular young man told me, between gulps of pizza, “I want to play in the NBA.” I didn't know what to say.
Fortunately for him, this kid didn’t have enough talent or drive to allow him to keep this picture on prominent display in his mind for long. Life quickly disabused him of any notion that it would come true and he was able to attend to other pictures.
Some aren’t as fortunate. They’re the people who have real talent and get close to seeing their pictures come true, but circumstances get in their way. In Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Natural, made into a movie starring Robert Redford, a talented ballplayer named Roy Hobbs sees his dreams of getting into the major leagues delayed until, by happenstance, he becomes an aged rookie for a pennant-contending team. To his former lover, he says wistfully, “Things sure turned out different.” When pressed on what he meant, Hobbs describes the picture he’d held in his mind for decades--the picture that enslaved him now and made it impossible for him at that moment to be truly happy. He saw himself in his retirement years walking down the street and hearing people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Roy knew that would never be said of him and there was no picture with which he could replace the old one, a new vision that would liberate him for living.
My coaching experience came as the result of my carrying a picture in my mind. I'd envisioned myself molding these nine guys, most of whom hadn't played that much basketball and were usually the last ones chosen for pick-up games, into a real team. I pictured them all becoming confident young athletes. I saw some of them even becoming good enough to try out for their school team and making it.
But none of that happened. It wasn't until years later that I found out what did happen. I got a phone call about five years ago from one of the team members. He and his family had moved far away. He was in town visiting relatives. "Mark," he told me, "my grandmother always sends your newspaper columns to me and I keep them in a scrapbook." I gulped, touched and filled with wondering disbelief at this revelation. Then he said, "I really want to coach, to work with kids and help them the way you helped me." Honestly, I have no recollection of anything I ever said or did that could have remotely been seen as helpful to this kid. But I came away from the conversation thinking that, no matter what picture had motivated me when I decided to coach a basketball team, Someone else had a different picture in mind.
That often happens. One of my favorite Biblical figures is Joseph, eleventh son of the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob. Joseph was a person with all sorts of pictures in his mind from an early age. He was a dreamer. On top of that he was, as a youngster, a snot-nosed braggart and his daddy's favorite. So, he would let his older brothers know about dreams in which his future dominion over them was foretold.
Understandably, his older brothers, working hard for their father while Joseph enjoyed an easy life, didn't care for Joseph's pictures of the future. So, they secretly sold the boy into slavery, insinuating to Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
Ultimately, Joseph was sold to a prominent Egyptian official. Years passed. After rising in the esteem of his owner, the owner's wife hurled false charges at Joseph and he ended up in prison. More years passed. Finally, because of his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph was released from prison and became, in effect, Egypt's prime minister.
As things developed, Joseph's brothers, unaware that this Egyptian official was their long-lost kid brother, bowed before Joseph--just as had happened in his long-ago dreams. They were seeking food, because the land of Canaan where they lived was undergoing famine. Eventually, Joseph revealed his identity, telling his brothers that all was forgiven. He brought his entire extended family to live with him.
After Jacob died, his brothers became afraid. They were sure that Joseph's regard for his father was all that had prevented him from getting revenge on them for his many years of suffering. So, they concocted a story for Joseph, claiming that Jacob had told them to tell Joseph that once he died, Joseph shouldn't kill them. Joseph wept, not from being chastened by these words attributed to his father. He wept instead, because his brothers didn't get it: He had forgiven them. Besides, he said, God had allowed all this adversity to befall him so that a better picture than even he had seen in his dreams would become real. Because of his vice-regency of Egypt, thousands were being spared starvation, including his own family. "You meant it for ill," Joseph told his brothers. "But God meant it for good!"
One of the arts we need to master in life is discerning when to hold onto a picture and when to replace it with a new one. Some people give up too quickly on the pictures in their minds--visions of happy marriages, of restored friendships, of careers that match their abilities and passions--and lose out on the good that life has to offer. Others hold on tightly to preferred pictures and so, make themselves and those around them miserable. This art of holding onto and letting go of our preferred pictures has relevance to things as simple as evening plans and as big as a national vision.
Two other good things to have when it comes to the pictures we hang in the central galleries of our minds are faith and a sense of humor. In fact, I think they're essential. I’ve told the story before about Father Myke, the New York Fire Department chaplain who was killed in the 9/11 attacks. “If you want to make God laugh,” he used to say, “tell Him what you’re going to do tomorrow.”
I may write more about this in the future. I can't promise that I will...God would get a chuckle if I did.
UPDATE: Thanks to Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit and to Betsy of Lunar World for linking to this piece.