Mere mention of the old Beatles classic sets my mental jukebox a-spinnin’:
All my troubles seemed so far away
But now it seems as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe… in yesterday...
I'm not half the man I used to be
There's a shadow hanging over me
I keep it confined to my head, of course. The last time I busted out in unbridled song all the small animals fled my neighbourhood and didn’t come back for weeks.
Yesterday is a meaningless ditty about shattered romance dreamt up whole-cloth by Paul McCartney one night in 1965,
For many, though, it’s an anthem for hard times.
Most of us are acquainted with unexpected reversals of fortune. Dark clouds descend like a shroud “as though they’re here to stay”, the gloom shaded by our frustration with the seemingly random and whip-saw turns of the universe. It can all seem so unfair.
Unfair, maybe. But inevitable, surely. Good times rarely roll on forever. Triumph yields to failure, health to illness, freedom to imprisonment, and so on. Life has plenty of ups but just as many downs – and some of the downs are brutal.
In The Shawshank Redemption, the superb movie based on Stephen King’s novel, wealthy banker Andy Dufresne is condemned to life in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and her lover.
Andy and a busload of other fresh convicts are paraded in chains into Shawshank State Penitentiary past a chorus of jeers from prison veterans: “Fresh fish! Fresh fish! Fresh fish!”. Stripped of their street clothes, doused with a firehose, and smothered with de-lousing powder, they are re-clad in prison stripes and shoved into their new cells.
Some of the prison’s hardened cons, led by a murderer named “Red”, place bets as to which of the newbies will be the first to crack.
“Somebody always breaks down crying,” Red observes. “When they put you in that cell and those bars slam home, that’s when you know it’s for real. Whole life blown away in the blink of an eye, nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
Sure enough, the nightmarish blackness of that first night, riddled with vile threats and vicious heckling, proves too much for a tubby convict dubbed “Fat Ass”. He dissolves into a heap of agonized sobbing:
“God! I don’t belong here! I’m not supposed to be here!”
Maybe not. Yet there he was.
So it can be with us. When we’re sideswiped by calamity, our “whole life blown away in the blink of an eye”, it’s only human to lament: “I’m not supposed to be here!”. It’s human to yearn for yesterday - “when all our troubles seemed so far away.”
But it doesn’t do us much good. The past is in the past. Another hit single from those long-ago 60’s put it bluntly: “Yesterday’s Gone”.
Our attitude in these things doesn’t cut the other way, ordinarily. When life is chugging along smoothly, when everything is coming up roses, we think that all is as it should be. Never does “I’m not supposed to be here!” enter our heads. We take ample credit, even, for our comfortable lives, willfully unaware that the line between triumph and tragedy is whisper-thin.
We get away with it most of the time because the odds generally work in our favour. We live in a world of close calls. “Almost disasters” far outnumber actual tragedies.
Linda Besner, author of Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, opened a fascinating essay in The Globe and Mail last summer with this vignette:
Near midnight on July 7, 2017, one of the worst disasters in aviation history – in which Air Canada Flight 759, carrying 135 passengers and five crew, missed its runway on the descent into San Francisco International Airport and crashed into four passenger planes awaiting takeoff, killing or injuring more than 1,000 people – came within four metres of happening.
Tragedy almost struck. But it didn’t.
Near tragedies happen a lot. According to an estimate in Besner’s essay, for every disaster that happens there are a hundred or more near-misses.
Yet for all the near-misses, disasters happen – everywhere, every day, and to all kinds of people. I have a front row seat to this kind of thing. I’ve been a pediatric emergency physician for the last fifteen years. Time and again I’ve cared for kids and families sucker-punched by critical illness and injury.
It can be difficult to bounce back, to regain one’s equilibrium, in the months and years following sudden calamity. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of regret, to wander the desolate landscape of “if only”.
But the path to recovery and healing doesn’t cut through the past. Life can’t be lived in reverse. Moving forward is the only option - and it’s darn hard to navigate while riveted to the rear-view mirror, ruminating over the crappy hand we were dealt.
I recently watched Dream/Killer, a riveting documentary of an actual case of wrongful imprisonment. (This sort of thing is unbelievably common: by some estimates at least 20,000 innocent prisoners currently languish in American jails.)
At the age of 20, thanks to shoddy police work and a corrupt prosecutor, Missouri’s Ryan Ferguson was convicted of a murder he didn’t commit and condemned to life in prison.
He wasn’t supposed to be there.
But Ryan and his father Bill didn't quit. Like Winston Churchill confronted by the horrors of war, Ryan and Bill never, never, never, gave up, no matter how hopeless it seemed.
High-profile lawyer Kathleen Zellner ultimately took their case; and ten years after being locked up as a killer Ryan Ferguson finally walked free.
The aforementioned Andy Dufresne, unjustly confined within the walls of Shawshank Penitentiary, offered this nugget of timeless wisdom - applicable to any circumstance, really:
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy livin’ or get busy dying”.
That’s not quite as poetic, perhaps, as Rudyard Kipling’s famous admonition to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”
But the advice rings equally true.
Because yesterday's gone.
We live today.
And we should believe in tomorrow.