bagelMy friend Bill and I were sitting in Goldberg’s, sharing a bagel and war stories. Both of us are recently retired from that newspaper on Marietta Street and still trying to figure out what we’ll be doing with the rest of our lives.

We toss around a few of the options – airline attendant, junior executive, stocking clerk at Kroger or cashier at QT. Bill adds the “f” word – freelancing. It’s about then that we decide we should be in a bar instead of a southern-fried deli in East Cobb.

Inevitably we find ourselves staring blankly at one another, the same thought bouncing around our minds – what happened?

On this particular day in mid-summer, the rich, pungent aroma of lox, corned beef, pastrami and stuffed cabbage wafting about, I had the answer. In fact, it was in an envelope on the table, hidden underneath a scattering of poppy seeds, bagel crumbs, a bit of gristle from a fatty piece of corned beef and a tiny schmear of cream cheese.

I pushed aside my plate, grabbed the envelope and pulled out an essay I had recently written. I shared my words with Bill. Now I share them with you.

Somewhere on the journey through life, about the time teens are making the inevitable transition to adulthood, whatever spark still remains of their spirituality is completely extinguished. For most people the tug of life’s race has become the main focus, the messages of childhood and the teenage years a constant reminder that now is the time to act.

Any effort to get quiet and look inward is sabotaged by the desire to move ahead, and the fear of being left behind. College needs to be completed, first jobs found, relationships cemented. The race is finally about to start and distractions are for losers. Problems are ignored, internalized. It’s time to play by the rules, to learn what works and what doesn’t, to take care of business, to get ahead.

And then the starter’s gun fires. The frenetic pace quickens.

rat-raceCollege is completed. There’s medical school. Law school. Maybe a master’s degree in business, or a doctorate in physics. Maybe not. Early career opportunities take off or turn sour. Relationships blossom. First children are added to the mix. The honeymoon ends.

Cars are bought. The suburbs beckon. Mortgages are acquired. The pressure grows to remain focused, to work harder and longer, to buy bigger and more expensive toys – to win.

Occasionally while driving home, or on the weekends, or during an infrequent vacation, there’s an overwhelming sense of emptiness mixed with a wave of anxiety, feelings that can’t be identified. It’s all very troubling. But it all quickly passes.

It’s make or break time. Careers and relationships are on the line. There are major promotions, job changes, divorces, new marriages and more kids. New, bigger houses are bought. Old furniture is replaced with designer pieces, prints with serigraphs. There’s even talk about investing in original works of art.

Stocks and bonds are purchased. Term life insurance is replaced with whole life. IRAs are set up. Educational funds for the children are established. And the kids are growing up so quickly. They’ve gotten so big. Where the heck has the time gone. And there’s that nagging feeling again, that sense of emptiness mixed with a wave of anxiety. But there’s no time to stop, to examine, to get quiet, to look inward.

A trip to Europe is planned, but canceled when the big deal falls through. The mortgage is due. The car payment is due. The oldest kid needs braces. The carpeting is getting old and ratty, and the house needs a paint job.

The boss seems to be getting a little edgy. He’s pushing. There’s just not enough time in the day to do everything, to do anything.Things around the house are tense. Life has become mostly work and sleep.

And there’s that feeling. It’s persistent. It won’t go away.

Maybe a new outfit or suit will help, maybe a big dinner. Maybe a drink. Maybe something a little stronger. Maybe an affair with the woman at the annual buyer’s convention. Maybe another drink, another affair.

Then outside forces take hold. The stock market tumbles, then tumbles a bit more. The economy starts to waver and the media begins tossing around reports of a recession. Profits fall and the bottom line moves from black to red. Furloughs and pay cuts are discussed in corporate offices and, eventually, layoffs. The unimaginable seems possible, then probable.

If only there was time to stop and think and figure out the pain, and the loneliness. If only there was someone to talk with who understood what was happening, someone who could help. But there is no time, no options, no chance to just stop and start over. Because there’s nothing inside anymore. It’s gone, vanished, the price paid to play the game and win the prizes.

shining_mistAnd then one morning after a night of pain and doubt and despair, a single ray of sunlight streaks across the darkened room and gloom of life, and miraculously ignites a spark deep inside.

The game is over, the beginning has finally ended. Hope is reborn into the world, a spiritual gift found just beyond the veil of human understanding, and you realize that you’re not alone.

Bill was silent for a few seconds. In fact, he didn’t speak for about a minute. Then he asked me if I wanted to split a prune danish and signaled for the waitress.

Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg

Ron Feinberg is a veteran journalist who has worked for daily newspapers across the Southeast, including the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. and the Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. He recently retired from The Atlanta Journal Constitution where he had been an editor since 1979. He was the news editor for The Atlanta Journal before it was folded into The Atlanta Constitution in the mid-1980s, then news editor for The Constitution. In the mid-1990s he helped create the AJC's Faith & Values section and served as its first editor