As a kid I remember reading stories where the hero would be faced with an impossible challenge and, somehow through strength and determination, win the day. I still like those stories, but have always wondered what went on with the hero in the days that followed. What was their “happily ever after” actually like?
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of great people during my travels. They are people whom I consider real-life heroes. Some of them you’d probably recognize by name. Others you have never heard of before. One of the reasons I think they are great is because they set out to accomplish things they believed in and then made them happen. They won their day. Unlike the heroes in the storybook, I have had the chance to see these people in the days that followed their big wins. In most cases, I cannot say that “happily ever after” looked the way I would have expected. Actually, it wasn’t all that different from the days leading up to it; at least that’s how it looked from the outside.
Some of big “wins” in my life, I must admit, felt pretty good. I’ll never forget the first time I received a standing ovation as a left-handed guitarist. It was proof that there was life for me as a performer after being diagnosed with dystonia; the audience was telling me so. The reason why that day had special meaning to me has everything to do with in the days leading up to it. There were so many times when it was all I could do to keep going. Looking back it’s easy to say that the struggle was worth it. It’s not such an easy thing to say, however, when you’re at the beginning of a journey that has no timeframe, no guarantees and no end in sight. There were many days when I thought seriously about calling it “quits”.
The most famous of these pivotal days is a story I share with many of my audiences. It was a day when the pain of starting over was especially hard for me. The fingering, the sound—all the things that had come fluidly after years of practice—eluded me. I had nothing to show for the days of hard work I had been putting in. In frustration I threw my guitar into its case and shoved it into the closet. Had it not been for a few well-placed words in a fortune cookie, that guitar might still be in the closet collecting dust. Instead, I read “Many people fail because they quit too soon.” I am eternally grateful for that fortune cookie because my guitar has never been back in the closet since.
The deeper meaning in that cookie didn’t come from the words at all. It came from a lesson I had learned about challenges as a result of what happened that day. Picking up my guitar and resuming the work I had started did not change the challenges that were confronting me. It didn’t instantly change the sound I was making and my fingering skills didn’t magically improve. The change that took place was inside me. I had made the decision that failure was not an option—and neither was quitting. The challenge was still there, but I met it in a different way. I learned that it did not help to resist or avoid the challenge. The only thing that was left for me to do, if I wanted to move ahead, was to accept it. In the process, I also learned to accept myself.
I gained a new respect for the work I was doing, which allowed me the patience that I hadn’t permitted earlier. Through experiences like this I have gained a glimpse into what “happily ever after” probably looks like. The heroes I have encountered in my life haven’t gotten past having challenges; they just deal with them differently. I think that a better way to translate “happily ever after” is to say “happy whatever happens after.” The true gain in dealing with tough circumstances is in knowing that you can and will get through them. It relieves the pressure and puts wasted energy to better use.
When I made my comeback after dystonia, we posted banners everywhere saying “Billy Mac is Back.” The banners were only partly correct. The left-handed guitarist that returned to stage was pretty different than the one who stood there before all of the recent adventures. To this day, there is still music in my repertoire that I cannot play, lots of it, in fact. I’d be kidding if I told you that I didn’t miss having the ability to play it. However, the capabilities that I lost have been replaced by a quality that could have come only from the transformation that took place in me. To say that Billy Mac is back after decades of playing guitar on stage is only half of a bigger story. Speaking out to inspire others on their journey is the other half. I have discovered that my music can be expressed in an entirely new way.