When I was about 14, I volunteered at a local VA as part of my Eagle Scout community service requirement. While there I began noticing something. There were two groups. One was what I call the “Sour & Dour” crowd and then there was, well – “Old Smokin’ Joe”.
The first was by far the more numerous of groups of patients and they would gather around a table somewhere and lament every ailment, ache and pain, telling in excruciating detail every detail of their latest surgery, procedure, or pain in the ass. They would hang their heads, shaking them, grousing and complaining what their lives had become. Every one of them was miserable. And they expected you to commiserate with them, spending long hours hearing about every dreary pain. Life sucks, dude! Get over it! Depression and grumpiness ran that group. And all their mutual commiseration didn’t seem help or change a thing. Indeed, it only seemed to make them worse – and “one upmanship’ was popular. Someone’s procedure, either dreaded, debated, and much talked about, was always bad; worse than any others. If someone sympathized it was only to wedge an opening for their own pains. If you’ve worked in the hospitals you’ve seen these folks: The Sour & Dour crowd.
And then over there in the corner you would find old Smokin’ Joe. He’d be strapped in his wheelchair – poop bag draped on one side; urine bag on the other, with a big wide grin – sometimes toothless, sometimes not. It depended his mood. But he was always there if you tried to find him – a withered old man all full of grins and smiles – dirty jokes, a crack and a grin – and a desire to go outside (to smoke his smokes sometimes). These were the rarest among the crowd of patients I tended – this group of patients who despite all the same pains and procedures, surgeries and disease as those others (the Sour & Dour Crowd), never really complained about them – no matter what! – and faced their dim futures with a brave and bright grin. They never seemed to quite lose that zest for life and humor no matter how much it hurt. And I thought to myself (I was just a teen): I’m gonna learn to do that. I’m wanna be like him, not like the old sour and dour crowd when I get older.” Old smokin’ Joe.”
And I began studying that attitude, that quality about ‘them’, not realizing what it was I was reaching for.
I started my study as a conscious thing, and I already had about two years of psychology under my dad’s tutelage when he was getting his psychology degree. I had a theory: if I could gain the mental maturity of someone Smokin’ Joe’s age, and adopt that happy-go-lucky philosophy when I was twenty-five, I could mature myself beyond that of a hundred. So it became an early goal have an old mind at an early age – and then mature it some more – and see where it would take me. After all, I figured, looking at Smokin’ Joe’s head, if he could be happy with his disabilities, troubles and such – why couldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I? The more I thought about it the more tempting it became. After all, we all grow older. Which way did I want to go? Passing the Sour Dour crowd it didn’t take much to know. I wanted to be like Smokin’ Joe. Not his age, but his mentality – before I got that old. Ideally by my mid-thirties or so, I figured. Then when I hit seventy or so, theoretically I would have a one-hundred plus year old mind. Looking at the Smokin’ Joes I could see: these folks are brave. They are fairly content with their life, and aren’t afraid of anything. They love to live. Just ask ’em. Compared to the Sour and Dour crowd . . . well, I knew what I wanted to be, even if I hadn’t the name for it at the time. I just needed to learn how.
That’s not to say that Smokin’ Joe didn’t have his times.
“Sure, sometimes it gets to ya,” Smokin’ Joe would confess, looking over his cigarette with that thousand yard stare. “But you gotta pull yourself out of it,” he’d say, looking back up at me. And he told me some secrets. “Live life when you’re young.” I guess I certainly did. Apparently it was more interesting, albeit painful than some. But that – that is where the interest comes: when you are challenged for your survival, or something else . . . a paycheck arrives sometimes in the form of something learned.
Sometimes it just takes a simple thing. Learning to relax, live in the “now” – to take in the world around you helps when you are ignoring your pain. Letting go of thought and just feeling it – the world. For Joe it was a smoke and a wheel down the runway where he could enjoy the sunshine and flowers. Having a friend take him there.
“Keep your chin up,” he’d say with a smile and a wink. He’d learned not to take anything too serious. All of them do. And that’s the thing. It’s hard to keep your chin up – and my instructors used to say it makes for a better punching bag that way – but it’s better than the alternative – being miserable and sad. Life’s not long enough for sadness; learn to let go.
Smokin’ Joe taught me: Life’s hard enough without dwelling on it and making yourself miserable – and missing the freedom that you had. Instead find new joys and hobbies. Make friends. Don’t be afraid to roll up to someone and say, “How are ya?” with a brimming smile and handshake. Don’t be afraid to share your cigarettes with someone (just don’t make a habit of it – you gotta have your own.)
There were a lot of subtle lessons Ol’ Smokin’ Joe taught me over time. I left there in about a year to go work in some animal labs – but while I was there and all the while since it was in the back of my mind, this thing. Later on, when I was about seventeen, I joined a Lodge with seventy year old men – about fifty of them. I buried a lot of my friends. But again – I did it both sub-consciously and consciously – seeking to study them without really knowing what I was looking for. It was a study that would eventually consume my life – and I suspect will continue to consume it some more. The desire and search to be happy, which can only come from inside. But I didn’t know that then; it wasn’t until much later I learned that thing. No one ever told me the goal was to be happy. That I had to realize – and find – on my own. Like anyone does nowadays and in the past.
*Note that I still find it a strange and odd behavior that at fifteen I decided to gain the mental maturity of an eighty year old mind, and set my goal for that by the time I was “30-something”. I don’t think I’ve succeeded – not completely. The idea was to ‘build’ a much more mature ‘mind’ than usual or normal for a person my age, and the intent was to ‘become’ more like these older men who were happy and joking. What made them that way?, I wondered. What were their attitudes? What were their beliefs? Their feelings and perceptions? I knew before I started I didn’t know a thing, and there’d be questions I hadn’t thought of – and there were. Assuming my theories are correct, I should end up with a one-hundred twenty or so “mind” before I am gone. Or something like that. Should be interesting to see.