On one hot Fourth of July morning in 1967, my dad read the entire Declaration of Independence with me. One of the things he helped me to understand was how monumental a moment this was in history. When Thomas Jefferson wrote this, and the rebellion’s leaders signed it and delivered it to the British, they were virtually guaranteeing a terrible war with the reigning heavy-weight “Superpower” of the 18th century, and they were all very likely going to be hanging from a gallows within the week. In those few hours that Jefferson had to write it, he knew what he was doing not only for the world, England, and the Colonies, but for himself. That’s why he used such far-reaching and momentous language to begin the Declaration: “When in the course of human events…” He knew he was at an historical and personal crossroads, made it happen, and recognized the event while it was taking place. A situation almost unique in history. My dad told me it was America’s Best Day, and I later read that Jefferson felt it was his Best Day, too. And by taking the time that morning to explain each section, making such an important part of my country’s history understandable and accessible even to an impatient, obnoxious twelve-year old, my dad made that day one of my Best Days.
It’s so rare when we catch glimpses of the consequences of our actions, see the impact that what we do and say has on ourselves and the rest of the world. That’s what creates the essential ingredient of Tragedy. From Sophocles to Shakespeare it’s the same, that combination of Time and Knowledge: “We learn too late” or “If I only knew then what I know now.”
We all have times that we remember, benchmark days, anniversaries, moments that mean something to us. Some are days that we try to hold forever, by capturing them on film, or by telling the stories over and over until they become the modern “myths” of our lives. We try to store and save them for cold winters and the proverbial rainy days: when our child was born, our wedding day, the day our daughter got her Wings in the Navy or our son graduated from college, the day we first fell for someone, or hit a home run. Special moments of grace and love and happiness. Our Best Days. Of course, there are other remembrances we do everything to try and forget: deaths, losses, injuries, divorces, all of the equally special moments of pain, and shame, and sadness, our Worst Days, but that’s for another time.
We share our Best Days like special gifts with our loved ones and friends, even total strangers, because our Best Days make us feel all the positive, confident feelings about ourselves, all the things that make us who we like to be.
A year ago, I had the honor of speaking to the residents and staff at a facility for people with serious and persistent mental illness/brain disorders. And one of the folks, an elderly man who, because of his struggle with schizophrenia, had lived there 40 of his 60 years, took me off to the side afterwards and told me the Story of his Best Day. He told me with sparkling eyes how once, 20-some years ago, he was in a Super America store, and the woman behind the counter, a total stranger, was kind to him. That’s all. Nothing else. But for this man, that was enough. This is a man, closer to the end than the beginning, who has never owned a car, never had his own apartment, never made love to a woman, never had a job or gotten a paycheck and probably never would. But this man had such joy telling people about his Best Day. He brings out the Story of his Best Day like a burning coal, cradles it lovingly in his hands, and each time he tells it he blows on the spark of whatever is his essence, whatever makes him “him,” and it’s been a key to why he’s still here on earth, why he can find joy when most of us would find only regret.
We never know what our actions and words might do, what impact we have on others and the world. How we may be at personal crossroads, an historic moment in time when the world can change for us or for someone else. This man, a man whom society would judge to be useless and worthless, gave me the most valuable treasure I’ve ever received. More clearly than anyone had ever done before, he let me see life from a totally new perspective, making me realize that every word, every action, every gesture I make and thought I have, can truly, whether I know it or not, transform hell into heaven. And “if I only knew then what I know now” I would have been much kinder, much nicer to the people that I have met through the years. This knowledge — that simply being kind to a stranger buying a candy bar at a convenience store — can be as universe-changing as “When in the course of human events,” has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, and has become one of my best Best Days.