We all have a brief time on Earth. Some of us spend this time rushing about trying to accomplish an impossible list of tasks, each replaced immediately by another upon completion. Some strive hard for achievements while taking time out to enjoy the quiet, peaceful days life provides us. Others meander through life from one day to the next, with little concern for racking up a list of “achievements” apart from getting out of bed.
All groups have their merits and their downfalls. Personally, I find myself in the first group. Whether it came at birth or in the way I was raised, I always seem to dish more onto my plate than I can handle. Over the past few years I have been a full-time student and held down two jobs while also trying to advance a career in music — not to mention maintaining a regular social calendar of rockin’ n’ rollin’ all night and partying every day.
This — miraculously — worked well until exam time in April, when I was hit with the first in a wave of minor illnesses. They came at me one after the other until this week. All the while I refused to let up on the pace I’d set for myself, assuming I could get through both tasks and illnesses unscathed and without having to relent on the number of beers I consumed on a daily basis. Any health practitioner will tell you this is not a path to tread, and it wasn’t long before I was hit rock hard with possibly the worst flu I’ve ever experienced in my life. If it hadn’t been for the loving rehabilitation from my girlfriend, I don’t think I would have been able to write this article, much less edit this first section of the year.
And so I’ve come to the conclusion that country music legend Tom T. Hall was right after all when he sang his classic tune, “Joe, don’t let your music kill you.”
Perhaps I listened to a little too much Neil Young as a child, and not enough Tom T. Young’s classic line, reiterated first to my generation by the late Kurt Cobain, “it’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” has likely coloured my outlook on what it means to achieve success. Neil may have been commenting on the flash-in-the-pan success of the Sex Pistols — who I also overly admired in my youth — but the message sums up the lives of many young artists-to-be who hold the “27 Club” in high esteem.
Kurt, Jimi, Janis, Jim, Brian, Pigpen — their stars burnt out long ago and their bodies are rotting in the ground, forever 27, yet still people hold these artists up as gods, while musicians who continue to perform well into their sixties, like Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot, are often looked upon as old fools who should have bowed out long ago.
But who are the real winners, in the end? In 100 years time, some of their works may survive, but much will go the way of all art — back to the void from which it was created. The same could be said about much of our other earthly pursuits apart from art. Sports awards, comment articles, GPAs, “unforgettable” party nights, that extra minimum wage shift you picked up. Whatever. Our personal vectors through life are only so short and there comes a time to weigh what is important, and what can wait.
So, if you happen to be like me and push yourself to the point of exhaustion over life’s trivialities — as Tom T. said, the things that “are supposed to make you happy” — take a break and cool your jets. Ask yourself, “Is this particular thing worth hitting the wall for?”
Ask the stars above, who’ve seen much more than all of us put together. Ask the sun, which will burn on well after you and I are dead and gone. Better yet, ask the dust. As inconsequential as these motes are, they are quite literally what we are made of, and to what we — and all our endeavours — will return to when we are gone. Ask the dust, “Is it better to burn out and be gone, or to rust and enjoy the ride?”
Sheldon Birnie is the Comment Editor at the Manitoban.