The Complexity of Second Chances

Anyone who has read or seen Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove knows something about the complicated nature of second chances. The story opens with two old codgers, former Texas Rangers, whiling away their golden years drinking and herding cattle around their dusty ranch on the Mexican border. The many heroic feats they performed to help settle the West are drifting ever further into the past, and it looks like their adventurous lives will end with a whimper rather than a bang, in a more or less pleasant, if tedious, retirement.

But then one of the two hears tales of a lovely land to the north, where wide streams of cold water rush out of the mountains, where land is there for the taking, and where the grass is lush and green. It takes a while, but eventually he is able to drag his buddy out of his comfortable drunken lethargy and embark with him on one, last, gigantic adventure.

The consequences of the decision are huge. Men, both good and bad (Including his partner who was so reluctant to set out in the first place), die, and much is lost, but, with the sacrifice, comes the beginning of something new. The horizon of knowledge is pushed a bit farther west, and the great wheel of life keeps turning.

McMurtry is not naive enough to suppose that courage and steadfastness necessarily bring material comfort and rewards. Instead, as the tumultuous days pass those who do the right thing quite frequently suffer dire consequences. The good die young, middle aged, and old, and they suffer a good deal in between. To know this, and to nonetheless continue to strive to act rightly, is the moral lesson of the story.

These lessons shine brightly as I, and so many other men and women, decide how to handle a massive mid-life shift. In the past, for eons, mid-life and seniority primarily involved carrying on, guiding a new generation, and putting the final touches on a legacy. Now, when most middle aged men find themselves cast into the street, battered by a rapacious court system, and systematically degraded by a megalopic anti-masculine cultural power complex (more on that another day), there are tough lessons to be learned about good and evil.

The good part is that as we middle aged drifters consider our new adventures we can now bring to the decision making process some of the wisdom that we lacked back when we made those same choices the first time around. The tragic truth is that wasted and misspent youth cannot be reclaimed; it is gone forever, and while divorce formally ends something it does not change history or its effects. But eventually we lost men must set about the task of creating a new life, and while the passage of time has narrowed some possibilities – some have become so narrow they are utterly invisible (becoming a brain surgeon, a world class journalist or musician, raising a family on a ranch in Uzbekistan) – those that remain have deepened, exposing subtle tones and qualities, echoes that the haste of yesterday left us deaf to hear.

The central challenge of mid-life change is the same one that has faced humanity forever; when you finally get old enough to see the truth, you may find that it’s not too pretty, and you wonder if you have the remaining courage and fortitude to confront it. Shakespeare poetically described “the proud man’s contumely” and the famous “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” After you’ve been mugged, and you hear the joyful laughter of those who have plundered you, its hard not to organize your energy around fantasies of vengeance, or silent sleep.

Part of the problem is that vengeance and justice can, if looked at from just the right angle, bear a striking similarity. There is no such gratification as thinking we are doing the right thing and, in the process, thoroughly besting our tormenters. This prosaic formula has driven a thousand best selling novels and television shows. But there is a saying, I think it is by Byron, that “it is the highest treason, to do the right thing, for the wrong reason.” McMurtry would drink to that, for it is, unfortunately, true. We can’t serve two masters, and vengeance’s mastery is all-consuming.

It’s a strange thing to know what you know in mid-life, and nonetheless to sally forth to joust with new windmills that one is too old to believe are dragons. As wizened, damaged veterans, we understand how much, in the past, we relied on the blindness of youth to provide us with the initiative to stumble forward. To know what one is doing is a great blessing that becomes a heavy burden as the decades slide away.

McMurtry’s heroes probably knew that they, like us, will never get to revel in the luscious green grass of paradise, or, if they do, it wouldn’t be for long. That’s the price we pay for experience; and, when all is considered, for us, as for his heroes, it is still not a good enough reason for not setting out at all.