You have perhaps heard the story about the two inmates who looked through their barred windows.

One looked down and saw mud. The other looked up and saw stars.

People often say, “It is what it is.” The message is simply to accept what is. But what is “what is?” If the two inmates exchanged that truism, they’d assume they were accepting the same reality, but they wouldn’t be. When we surrender to the moment, we’re surrendering to our interpretation of the moment.  

A priest friend of Ray’s and mine spent many years in prison for a crime he insisted never happened. When I’d write to him, and upon our visits, I’d say that “it is what we make it. It is what we decide to see, feel, taste, touch, hear, and think.” He could grumble his days away, or see around him the possibility of having a positive influence on the lives of the other inmates in protective custody. He could continue to minister as priest.  

My mind often wants me to get stuck in the mud, but I choose as often as I can to get lost in the stars. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t horrors we are all forced to acknowledge. We can’t hear about a driver running down children on the sidewalk and speeding away without us feeling great sadness, and anger. But where our mind goes next is what’s important. Do we feed and share the anger, wanting someone to pay, or do we embrace the children and their families in our hearts? Do we curse or bless? We can do both, but where do most of our energy go?

We had new tires put on our old, Mercedes, red convertible by Layton’s garage. Not long after, as I headed out with Lincoln on our way to the Pampered Pooch for a wash and cut, I could tell something wasn’t right, especially when I spotted Ray in the rear-view mirror waving his arms. The back left tire was flat because at some point, one of us drove over a big screw. It is what it is, but what is “it?” As soon as I got out of the car, a friend pulled up behind us to ask if there was anything he could do. His kindness was part of the “it.” So was Lincoln’s patience, and the sight of Ray filling the tire with foam from a can, and the understanding of the groomer. Before I knew it, I was on my way, and only five minutes late.  

The wait for AAA to come to change the tire took two and a half hours. What you see is what you get. But, what did I see? I saw two nice guys who admired the car, with knowledge and appreciation for the automatics that were far beyond mine. I saw a juice bar in which everyone was very friendly, and I got an iced drink of leaves that was guaranteed to make me mellow. And I saw the groomer who gladly held on to Lincoln until the AAA truck arrived. Although I was frustrated with the wait, despite the iced tea, the people at AAA couldn’t have been nicer. So, when I got home and Ray asked, “How was it?” I had lots of options to describe the “it,” one of which was that I got high on the tea.  

You’ve heard the story of Ray and me loaning all of our retirement money to dear friends who can’t pay us back. For the remainder of our lives, we’ll live on Social Security, which is not how we imagined growing old. It is what it is, but beyond the mud of “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” there are the bright stars of living for a while in our dream house on a lake, of experiencing life in a forever wild environment, of making friends who we will love the rest of our lives, of teaching our young grandnephews and nieces how to water ski, of learning forgiveness, and of understanding the extraordinary power of living in the moment with gratitude.  

Focusing on the stars isn’t always easy, but it’s always easier. Training your mind and heart to focus on the good takes a lot of practice, but I find it more possible as I age. There’s something quite wonderful about being a senior. Aging can have the benefit of letting go of the things that weigh us down so that we can ascend and look down on ourselves in whatever is happening. The experiences of my life since birth in deciding on what to focus my attention on enabled me not to go crazy about the two-and-a-half-hour wait with the AAA guy. No one would argue that I wouldn’t be justified in being really angry, frustrated, and resentful, but those feelings, when fed, achieve nothing, and they eliminate my ability to be present to the magic of each moment, including the magic of kind, caring strangers. The AAA driver knew from dispatch how frustrated I was that it was taking so long, but for him the delays were what his work life was like. He did his best.  

Yesterday, I did most of the dinner preparation in the morning, including oven roasting carrots and thinly sliced potatoes. Knowing that Lincoln can easily put his front paws on the kitchen counter, I covered the vegetables with parchment paper, and put a set of tongs on top. When I got back from my errands, Lincoln greeted me excitedly, as always, at the door. When I entered the kitchen, and saw the empty roasting tray, I understood why the dog was now acting sheepishly. I’d love to be able to tell you that my age and spiritual practice made me look at the stars, but I initially saw mud. And then I decided to let go of my anger, to realize that it was my fault for not hiding the food in the oven, and to start again by calmly preheating the oven to 400 degrees, and peeling two more potatoes. I pet Lincoln, took him for a walk around the garden, stepped out of the mud, and saw stars.  

It is what it is, but it’s also what we make it. What we see is what we get, but what we see can change so that we consistently feel love and gratitude. The choice is always ours.

Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.


Two Guys and a Dog | Allowing for Imperfections