“And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche
As I was walking along Spring St in downtown Los Angeles last week an old man whispered to me as I passed by an alley.
“Daniel...” He said.
“Excuse me?” was all I thought to say. It caught me off guard, this man that knew me by name.
He stepped out of the shadows, and staring me up and down, took in every inch of me as man might while inspecting a vehicle before purchasing. I was stuck in my tracks; something was holding me there. I couldn’t seem to move. He was dressed impeccably, in a dark suit like he’d come from a black tie event, and he was oddly familiar, but I couldn’t seem to place where we’d met. I swore when I first noticed him I thought he was in rags, but I was mistaken, or he had changed before my eyes. What is going on?
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“Ha! You can’t even help yourself boy!” He snapped back at me in a playful way. Still staring intently, “so this is what I look like huh? I don’t remember being so jumpy.”
What is he talking about? Why is he saying; ‘this is what I look like?’
“Do I know you?” I feel as though I do. As I ask the question, my voice seems fragile, my confidence waivers. I feel a bit dizzy.
“You sure you don’t know me?” He laughs, “of course you know me kid, I’m you.”
“You’re me?” What is this guy talking about?
“Yup. Take a look at me, this is you 40 years from now.”
“What the fuck?” I snap back to the moment as shivers shoot up my spine. This cannot be.
“Ha! Much better! That’s the kid I remember.” His eyes take me in as I’ve never been taken in before. He stares at every inch, every nook, and every wrinkle. I now see that the resemblance is uncanny. It really is me. I don’t understand.
“Don’t question it too much man, it won’t make sense to you why I’m here, and I only have a short time, so let’s talk.” He seems to have known exactly what I was thinking, that this couldn’t be real. He speaks to me in a way that instantly makes me drop my guard and feel comfortable. This can’t be real. I must be dreaming.
“Ok. What are you doing here then? Or…ummm… what am I doing here?”
“There we go. Now that’s what I was hoping you’d ask. And the answer is I’m here to talk to you of course. About you, about me, about us.” He laughs out loud at this last line as if it’s the joke of the century. I can’t help but join him. I wonder what someone watching this exchange might think.
“I am here to tell you, don’t give up.” He waits a beat, “I know you’re having a rough time right now, and I came back to tell you that it gets better. Don’t give up.” As he says this, the breath rushes out of me. I feel as though a thousand pound weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and before I realize it, I can feel tears running down my face. I reach up to wipe them off, embarrassed by my sudden breaking of male protocol. The lie we’ve been taught since childhood that we must be tough, impenetrable, and stoic.
“It’s okay man.” He says softly, as he sets his hand on my shoulder. “I know it feels impossible right now. That’s why I came back to find you.
“It’s been 40 years since I was in your shoes,” he continues, “and even now it still hurts a bit to look back and remember the path you’re going to walk. It’s not easy. I remember feeling as though my skin was peeling from my bones and my stomach was eating itself, I felt hollow sometimes. So many sleepless nights, filled with anguish and anxiety, followed by even more difficult mornings. But I am here to tell you that it does get better.”
I am full on crying now, tears that feel like they’ve been held my entire life come flowing freely down my cheeks. Snot runs from my nose into my beard as I cry. I begin laughing. Laughing for a reason I do not know, laughing at how funny I must look, laughing at how vulnerable I feel. It feels so good to cry.
“I just don’t understand” I begin to say, before crying again takes me. He looks at me with understanding, waiting for me to continue. “I feel tense all of the time. I just can’t seem to relax. It’s like I’m dragging around a ball and chain wherever I go, carrying this cloud above me. My brain won’t turn off; it just keeps spinning. I can’t seem to rebound from prison, or fix my credit, or just feel stable – at all.” The last part was half English and half sobbing gibberish.
“I know.” He says softly, “I know.” He speaks with more love then I’ve ever known. “And I know you might not believe me right now, but I promise you Daniel, it will get better. Do not give up.”
“Of all the things I talk about with my future self.” I’m laughing now at the irony, but the tears have stopped. “It’s like, here I am with my future self; I can talk about anything. What are some good stock tips? What are some sports scores I should bet on? What happens in my future? And all I can do is break down and cry, typical.” He is laughing now too.
“We always were sensitive weren’t we?” He smiles. “Those things you’re talking about are unimportant. Trust this old man when I say that. All of the greatest things in life, you can’t buy with money. You already have the right idea, I promise you. Just keep doing what you’re doing - working hard, helping other people – and everything else will work itself out.”
“Thanks.” I stammered out. Before asking, “so you came back 40 years just to tell me that ‘everything will be okay’ and that I shouldn’t give up?”
He stands up extra straight, before again leaning in, even closer to meet my eyes with an intensity that is almost frightening. He wants to be sure he has my full attention, which he does.
“Yes. I came back 40 years to tell you that the most difficult obstacle you’ll ever have to overcome is yourself. And I know that some days you’ll feel like it’s impossible to do, but I’m telling you, it’s not. You will overcome, and you will be okay.” As he says this last line, I know he’s telling the truth. I’ve known all along. I have always known this. I just needed to be reminded.
“Okay.” I say.
“You good?” He asks? I can tell it’s his time to go.
“Yeah.” I say, nodding. “I’m good.”
“Good, then I’ll go back where I belong. I’ll see you again before you know it. And remember to enjoy the ride, okay? The next 40 years are going to fly by. And there are going to be some really, really hard times, but you will get through them. You’re going to be okay man. You’re going to get more in life than you ever could’ve dreamt, I know because I’ve lived it. So remember to breathe, and I’ll see you soon ok?” And with this, he turns and walks back into the alley.
“40 years isn’t that soon!” I call after him.
“It’s like this.” He says as he holds up his hand and snaps his fingers loudly, before disappearing into the shadows. Like he was never even there.