Best of Times, Worst of Times…and the Time Between

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

So wrote the English novelist Charles Dickens in the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. This was 70 years after the French Revolution he was alluding to and two years before our own Civil War began here in the U.S.

You grammar geeks will be dazzled to know the sentence went on for 119 words and included 17 commas and one em dash. It is very possibly the best-known and most oft-repeated opening line in literary history. (Besides, of course, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”…)

People often recite the first two clauses (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) without even knowing where they came from.

And for our purposes here, those clauses denote the two opposite poles or extreme emotional states of human life: highs and lows, peaks and valleys, joys and sorrows.

A friend told me the other day he’d become a cynic because he doesn’t think the world will survive climate change. I told him it’s not cynical to fear the end of the world—it’s cynical only if you therefore stop caring about it.

We all know about those: the at-least-occasional brushing up against states of extreme joy and abject despair. Or as the more modern writer Irving Stone had it in the title of his book on Michelangelo, “The Agony and the Ecstasy.”

Still later, the late and lamented ABC sports show that some of you of a certain age might remember—“The Wide World of Sports”—had a slogan that became a major cultural meme in its own right: “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

Sometimes it seems we are doomed to ricochet between those two poles all our lives. We climb up the ladder of happiness thinking maybe we’ve finally figured this thing out and…Ka-boom!

Something intrudes to burst our bubble yet again. Maybe some catastrophic event, or an existential crisis when we become slowly haunted by doubts and questions about the lives we’ve led.

I came across this recently from the English literary critic Terry Eagleton: “The meaning of life consists in the search for the meaning of life.” (So now that you know what the meaning of life is, maybe I should just wrap things up right here?)

The one thing we know through it all, though: The mountain rises, and right over the other side, it descends to the valley. Neither exists without the other to define it. Talk about a metaphor…



Down about mid-state, there’s an annual ultramarathon that goes from the lowest point in the continental U.S., Death Valley, to the base of the highest: Mt. Whitney.

It crosses three mountain passes over 135 miles and a total elevation gain of 13,000 feet. It was just held again this past week—mid-July. Hot. Sooooo hot.

Having hung out with some of these ultra characters over the years, I can tell you they are all slightly touched in the head. The winners usually finish in about 24 hours. There are marathons, and then there is that marathon, and it is only for people chasing a very peculiar form of ecstasy.

We might look at them as addicts of the extremes, personifying in their physical exertions and travails our desire to live with intensity and a burning need to do something that matters. That allows us to stand out from the humdrum.

Not just the same old same old, but to engage fully with life on a quite literally different terrain.

Nikos Kazanzakis makes that case through his main character in Zorba the Greek:

It’s all because of doing things by halves, saying things by halves, that the world is in the mess it is in today. Do things properly, by God! One good knock for each nail and you’ll win through! God hates a halfdevil ten times more than an archdevil!”

Or as Jack London, our favorite son here on the North Coast wrote in the inscription to one of his books for a friend: “I would rather be ashes than dust.”

Jack London

That line is from a longer quote that has been attributed to London but which scholars allow may have been embellished greatly by the journalist Ernest Hopkins. (Kind of an early version of fake news…)

Hopkins hung out with London as London’s health was failing at his ranch in Glen Ellen. Hopkins wrote what he claimed was transcribed from one of London’s utterances during that time. You may have seen it emblazoned on a poster or coffee cup:

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist …

Obviously, London was not going gently into that good night, to paraphrase another famous line from the poet Dylan Thomas. (We might note as an aside that London and Thomas, bright burning meteors that they were, lived to be all of 40 and 39 years old, respectively. I think there may be a lesson in that…)

In any case, the journalist Hopkins later wrote of that occasion:

“When he made that striking summary of his personal philosophy, London was marvelously alive. He irradiated vigor. Every breath that he drew was to him a brilliant sensation. Every moment of his time was crammed with events. He was in love with life—and with vitality—ablaze with… joy and poignancy… Of all the ardent group that heard him on that occasion, he was the most alive. Beside him all other men seemed colorless.”

So if we are to believe Hopkins, even when London was traversing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, he was busy scaling ever more peaks.

A question to consider: Does hearing that about London make you feel inspired…or just tired?

Does it make you want to stop reading and hop online to plan your next bucket list adventure?

Iceland! Mozambique! Paris and Patagonia!

Or does it leave you more inclined to stay home, light a candle, curl up on your couch and reflect on just how peaceful and satisfying life can be when you’re not jostling your way through the world’s airports and traffic?

Certainly, we all need our peaks, our glimpses of the divine, however we define that. Those times when the world seems to add up to a perfect whole, and we feel perfectly fitted and filled within it.

That’s the spice, the juice, the elixir that adds color to our experience and—almost as important—to the storytelling that comes afterward. Those moments of joy that seem to fill us to the brim.

Just as certainly, no matter how high or sustained those ecstatic glimpses may be, the shadow eventually returns, the valley beckons. Nobody gets out of this life alive.

16th century English poet Francis Quarles laid it out quite nicely:

“The way to bliss lies not on beds of down
And he that had no cross deserves no crown.”

And then we come to the place between those extremes of peaks and valleys, crosses and crowns. You know: boring old sea level, or just a little above it. Where most of us not named Jack London, Dylan Thomas or Zorba the Greek live, most of the time.

Not up floating around the peaks, “making all others seem colorless.” Nor down there in the sweltering valleys.

Just hovering close on the flats.

A kind of Kansas of the emotional life.

What does this moderate middle have to say for itself?



Buddhism, of course, posits a whole religion, if one can call the “no-religion” of Buddhism a religion, on what it calls “The Middle Path.” It’s that place between extremes, not indulging the pinballing between elation and dejection.

Famed basketball coach John Wooden of UCLA preached this relentlessly to the 10 national championship teams he coached through the 1960s and ‘70s. He never wanted his team to get too demonstrative and joyous in victory, nor downtrodden in defeat.

He wanted an even keel. Be glad in victory, gracious in defeat. Don’t get all pogo-sticky about it emotionally. It’s probably no coincidence that Wooden was a midwesterner, born in Indiana and a graduate of Purdue University.

You may not have known this, but most midwesterners, with their self-effacing, modest, culturally sanctioned middle path ways, are closet Buddhists.

Now you likely have heard the Buddhist dictum, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” It’s a typically clever aphorism that reveals a whole world of understanding.

The most common take on this dictum is that even assuming you finally become enlightened and plugged into the deepest insights of existence, you still have to deal with the material world. You still have to take care of things, still have to clean the latrine now and again.

But it also goes deeper than that. It points to a difference between peak experiences—those brief brushes with the divine that often send us crashing back to earth—and enlightenment.

In most of the eastern literature that exhaustively chronicles the topic, enlightenment is far more a settled, less volatile state of mind and heart. No drama, no trauma.

No one can stay high all the time, even with the assistance of alcohol or drugs. We certainly have millions of case studies attesting to that!

This brings up not only Bacchus the wine god of over consumption and religious ecstasy, but also Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and paid for his brazenness by melting back to the earth.

Sometimes it’s useful to ask ourselves: Are we just collecting peak experiences like some people collect old cars or rare books?

“We went to China last year and walked along the Great Wall!”

“Hi, you’ll never believe where I am! The pyramids! Let’s see: 5 continents, 43 countries and all 50 states. And I took a selfie with President Obama. Bucket list complete.”

The torch singer Peggy Lee had a question for that approach to life: “Is that all there is?”



So here’s the true test of a life lived beyond a bucket list and all the fine memories it might leave us with.

And here’s the key question in that test: What are we like in our time on the middle path, when we aren’t up there beaming among the clouds, or down there getting pummeled and just trying to survive? During our regular workaday life, neither high nor low nor particularly inspired? Just being a regular person in our regular world.

How much are those days imbued with what we have brought back from both the peaks and the valleys? How have they chiseled and refined our character, our perspective?

A friend told me the other day he’d become a cynic because he doesn’t think the world will survive climate change. I told him it’s not cynical to fear the end of the world—it’s cynical only if you therefore stop caring about it. If you fail to live in even more commitment to the world, bringing more joy, understanding, compassion, mercy, humility and forgiveness to it.

So do “the best of times” and a perfectly rational expectation of more “worst of times” add up to something more whole, more unified and wise, a kind of fusion that leaves us more content and more courageous in what we love and commit to in our everyday lives, whatever else is going on around us?

The question seems especially pertinent in times of great societal stress as our country seems to be experiencing now. It’s no small matter, maintaining our equanimity and even daring to be joyful when all seems engulfed in chaos and roiling emotion.

I have always remembered a story I read from the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975-1990. It described residents of Beirut calmly visiting with each other and reading newspapers in a café while air battles and artillery fire were taking place along the Mediterranean Sea within sight and earshot of them.

The reporter was astounded, but the café patrons told him they simply refused to curtail their lives, refused to stop sipping their espressos and visiting with their friends.

That’s a different kind of “blazing meteor” than Jack London represented, I think.

And in many ways, it’s a more powerful statement of living fully, committed to everyday joys, whatever the circumstance. One can regard it as either profoundly reckless or profoundly enlightened, perhaps some of both.

And by “enlightened,” I don’t mean some perfect sainthood that leaves one above the hurly burly of life, wiped free of all neuroses. If that state exists, I’ve never met anyone who inhabits it.

But I am thinking about a basic state of equanimity. A middle path of lightness and generosity of spirit, an abiding, quieter joy that doesn’t require or cause so many highs and lows.

One that isn’t dependent on who the president is, or what our checkbook balance says.

A state of mind that instead greets most all daily life with acceptance and observes it with an ever present inner glow. Not every second of every day, but as a basic default.

It seems to me the road there is paved with the sum total of all those high and low experiences we have had, all the thrills of the peaks and spills to the troughs—now internalized.

It includes all our youthful indiscretions and even those when we’re older and exclaim, “Wow, I thought I was done with youthful indiscretions!”

All of it adds up to a different baseline, one not so inclined to pinball from high to low and back again, but steadier, more serene and reliable for others, and fulfilled in ourselves.

In other words, Kansas, with all the best that California and New York, Paris, Patagonia—and even Beirut—can add to the mix.


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Death Valley photo by Steve Rider

Prairie photo by Jeff Wallace, Alberta, Canada

Pyramids photo by Keith Yahl,

6 comments to Best of Times, Worst of Times…and the Time Between

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Drew, I’m a closet Buddhist (Illinois), huh? If my pre-enlightenment chore of “chopping wood and carrying water” is also the main activity of my enlightenment, I think my life as a monk would be short-lived. Isabel Allende wrote, “My life is about ups and down, great joys and great losses.” Allende’s roller coaster ride has been mine as well. I recall walking around our high school campus with my transistor radio glued to KFI (640 AM) as Vin Scully’s voice (the best) sang the glory of Sandy Koufax’s left arm (the greatest ever). His 100 mph fastball and curve that fell off the table brought our city two world championships. Great joys. However, after the 1966 World Series (a low), Koufax retired (very low) and in 1967 the Dodgers finished in last place, some 20 games below .500 (the lowest). Two years later, I went from Maury Elmore to John Wooden. A 26-year marriage ended in divorce, but I followed it up with a better union which now is closing in on its second decade. I’ve been blessed with four children and nine grandchildren, and yet my daughter’s first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. One of my grandsons was born a few weeks after my father died. As I look back on my life, I appreciate how lucky I’ve truly been despite the fact that epilepsy has been a pain in the ass for 50 years now. The key to life’s give-and-take, at least for me anyway, has been my ability to metaphorically avoid a Dylan Thomas like exit into a “not so gentle goodnight” by lining up “18 whiskeys” at a New York bar and slipping into a coma.

  • Mary  says:

    “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

    ― Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

    Thank you for this blog post, Andrew, which has prompted many thoughts and reflections, and brought so many worthy quotes to mind. I have returned to this one by Annie Dillard repeatedly and have decided to use it as the springboard for my comment today. To climb on that scaffolding and make good use of that “time between” is the opportunity we are handed every morning.

    As a former Midwesterner with Buddhist and Quaker leanings, I fully appreciate the joy of the quotidian, the inherent worth in the familiar, the daily, the routine. I greatly appreciate the intense and the exotic as well! and would not care to enter into any hierarchy; humans want and need both, they each inform the other. I sometimes go to bed at night in great anticipation of my morning cup of coffee in my certain cup, in my favorite chair on my porch; I also dream of having that coffee at a little cafe on a Paris street, surrounded by new sights with a foreign language swirling all around me.

    There are of course those highs and lows that exist simultaneously: the amazing kindness of our fellow humans when we or a loved one is so, so sick, the courageous acts of bravery or generosity and comfort in the face of other human or natural disasters. There are the wondrous experiences that are often, for me, wrought from the simplest of elements: light on water, all manner of skies and clouds, fresh breezes, the taste of a ripe peach. There is also the joy of human interaction: smile, appreciation, laughter, touch, artistic endeavor. Often the most wonderful part of traveling is to witness, in exotic locations, the human traditions and tasks that are played out daily all over the planet: simple acts of cooking, caring for children, family interaction, creativity, and community life.

    This discussion would not be complete without addressing the dramatic impact that social media has played on our appreciation and assessment of both the miraculous and the mundane. Photographs of every aspect of life are offered up for scrutiny, and for comparison. Every plate of food, smiling and eternally happy offspring and spouses, every holiday and occasion is documented and often cast in a glowing light. Sometimes I think this creates a deeper appreciation of the every day, of the ordinary. However we also know that it creates some weird standard, some awful yardstick that we collectively use to hit ourselves over the head. When one is looking at photos of other’s lives instead of interacting with one’s own, for starters, and then when looking around and creates feelings that one’s life simply cannot measure up to all that gloss… occasionally inspiring, certainly, but it just can’t be good in big doses.

    Okay, back on that scaffolding that Ms. Dillard referenced above!!! I’ll be appreciating the afternoon light as I clean the windows, dreaming a little dream of Paris….

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Mary, loved reading your post. Always enjoy Drew’s reflections, but often the comments of those replying are gems.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Robert, I’d never suggest you let go of your highs, I certainly do revel in mine! And of course no life can avoid the lows; they just come with the territory and commence right after our first breath. (“Wahhhh, I’m hungry and I’m starving to death here!” Followed by the high of the mother’s breast, when all becomes golden—for a little while…)
    Truly, it’s all in what we do with and make of the highs & lows, which hopefully does not include 18 whiskeys & a coma…
    Also, I’m with you in enjoying the heck out of the gem-like comments that often come in from readers. Hear hear! (Though wonderful writing and profound thinking is not a requirement, I would like to emphasize…)

    Speaking of which: Mary, much to revel in & resonate with in your reflections. Thanks for the tasty essay! But yes, the social media piece is a topic unto itself—and a very large one at that. My own love-hate relationship with much of it hardly makes me unique, but it sure does weave a tangled web in my mind, which I will likely try to pick at at some future time.

  • kirkthill  says:

    When I read your works Drew, my mind expands with so many thoughts. Bringing to mind those artful black and white portraits of very old people. The wrinkled valleys and shapes of their faces, the wisdom of their eyes and the set of the jaws, the shape of the hands, the curve of the back. All tell the stories of the highs and lows, the joys and pains, and the cries and laughter of family life, or the despair of loneliness. And when you close your eyes and you put the whole picture together, there is a glow, vibration, aura, that each one projects that says novels about their life. They are as beautiful as the first smile of a newborn, and their pains and fears as real as that first gasping cry for air. But underneath it all flows a meandering river of life, occasionally plunging into rapids and waterfalls, and the story of how they traversed the course and the lessons learned.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s lovely, Kirk, and I can picture the exact kinds of portraits you are describing; they invariably make me linger long and look as deeply as possible into each wrinkle, conjuring each tale they tell…

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