I used to think that “perfect” meant flawless, until I found perfection one day in an unlikely place –and in every life experience thereafter.
One lazy summer afternoon, my brother and I were enjoying a family outing at the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California. I was 9 and he was 12. The pier at that time was a weathered, wooden jetty extending three or four city blocks out onto the Pacific.
Maybe you’ve been there.
Along the strip were aging attractions: carnival-style rides, trinket shops and dark, fish restaurants with red vinyl booths. There was a psychic palm reader with a big hand painted in her front window and a beautiful, vintage carousel with hand-carved wooden horses, a pipe organ and a brass ring.
Then there was the arcade. Dad gave us each a few dollars and set us loose on the pinball machines, miniature bowling lanes and primitive video games.
Way off in a neglected corner was tucked an antique, mechanical amusement called, “The Dancing Minstrel.” He was a 12-inch, wooden showman clothed in a faded, cotton costume and tattered by thousands of performances. Beneath the display case was a coin slot and the price, 75 cents –big money for a kid.
As my brother approached the machine, I scoffed, “You’re not going to waste your money on that, are you?”
Of course, now, having been admonished by his little sister, he had to do it. He pushed me out of the way, and as I tried to recover my footing, he had already begun to insert the coins.
“NOOOOOOOO!” I cried, as the last of the coins disappeared.
We both looked up with bated breath.
It began: the music was sort of a honkey-tonk piece played by a slightly flattened pipe organ. Then, for the longest 30 seconds we’d ever endured, the tattered clown was flopped about mercilessly. It was horrible.
Of course, I did enjoy a full afternoon of gloating after that. But that’s not the point.
The point is that, while it’s generally true that we get out of life what we put into it, sometimes we make an investment of our money, our emotions, our time or our energy, and instead of the wonderful result we anticipate, we get…the dancing minstrel.
It’s enough to make one cash in one’s tokens. Yet, there are a number of lessons to be learned from our little wooden troubadour.
I could say that this story shows how we can’t let a disappointing experience stop us from taking chances in pursuit of happiness, an interesting argument.
Or, I could say that it’s not the result that matters; it’s the journey. It’s choosing a game! It’s being a player! Because, after all, the results are really not up to us anyway.
That might also be true.
But I’m going to suggest something else. I’m going to suggest that the results we receive in life –“dancing minstrels,” and all—are always perfect.
The results we receive in life are always perfect.
It’s our acceptance of those results and the choices we make having experienced them that make us into fully developed human beings.
Of course, the “trauma” of my little story here is told with tongue-in-cheek. The truth is that no one goes through life without experiencing very real losses –blows so crushing to the spirit we think we may not survive them.
But we do.
And through our grief our perspective widens, doesn’t it? Our appreciation deepens. And our hearts soften. Life’s disappointments, however serious, qualify us to live with empathy, without which our lives would be as superficial and as one-dimensional as that of the Dancing Minstrel himself.
If we’d gone in the arcade and consistently received the quality entertainment we expected, I would probably have forgotten that whole day.
But because of that tiny, dancing man, I remember clearly the smell of corn dogs, Coppertone and salt air. I remember the sounds of the seagulls, transistor radios and my brother’s voice.
Todd lived for another twenty years. And his loss was perfectly awful.
But on that summer day in Santa Monica, he and I won a prize much better than a stuffed toy. See, we went into the arcade for one thing –some frivolous fun—yet we came out with an indelible memory and a lesson:
The beauty of life is in our total inablity to control it. And that every ache, sigh and bitter pill brings with it something which enhances our lives in ways both unexpected and perfect.
And for 75 cents, that’s cheap at twice the price.