This story was originally written for Chabad.org, and was one of my most popular pieces. But it’s also an older story, and I’d like to think my writing skills have improved since I wrote it. So I’ve revised it, updated, and improved it. You can read the original here.
“I think his name is Jack.” That’s always how it is with him. No friendly arm draped around the shoulder, no, “Hey, have you met my buddy Jack?” Just quiet whispers, pointed fingers. “Who’s that?” they ask.
And then the wait—the long, long wait—until that hesitant, almost-a-question reply.
“I think that’s Jack.”
He’s the forgotten one, the ignored one. Funny thing is, it’s not because of them. They try to include him, try to talk to him about his opinion on this thing and that thing, but there are no “things” in Jack’s world.
There is only the struggle.
It’s everywhere. It’s all he knows. It’s there when he wakes up. It’s the last thing he knows before he goes to sleep. He goes on dates and she laughs about the park where he tried to ski and fell flat on his face and he laughs along with her, pretending he remembers all that, but all he remembers is the park where he struggled. He walks with friends and they point out their old high school where they did that silly play and how bad they’d all been at it, and all he remembers is the school where he struggled.
There is no world to Jack. No restaurants and no bars, no memories and no experiences.
There is only the struggle, and the places he struggles in.
He goes to a job interview one day—he doesn’t really want to but his mom insists so he agrees to try—and the man behind the desk asks him where he sees himself in five years. Such an innocent question, really, but Jack starts to cry, and the interviewer stands up, hands him a tissue, asks him if he’s OK, and he says that he is even though he isn’t, because how can he explain to him that he looks in the future and all he sees is the same, and maybe there’ll be a better job and maybe there won’t and it won’t even matter, because all he’ll have is the struggle . . .
“No. That’s not . . . that’s not how this goes. Let me try again.”
“I’m Jack.” Always the same answer, whenever they ask who he is. Softly spoken, dark eyes quietly intense.
Just two words, but somehow he says a world with them.
Jack’s is a quiet story, an introspective story. Jack’s seen things; experienced events no one should have to go through. It’s changed him. He’s not the immature, naïve boy he once was.
The world is not black and white, Jack has come to realize, and there’s no point wishing that it was.
He is who he is, and he accepts that.
When he heads for a job interview, the man behind the desk is impressed by his serious, well-mannered demeanor. He asks Jack where he sees himself in five years; Jack takes his time in responding, carefully considering the question first. When he answers, it’s with a thought-out plan—factual and reasonable, bare of any false hopes and unattainable dreams—and the interviewer has the sense that, no matter what happens here today, Jack will make sure he succeeds . . .
“But . . . no, that’s still not . . .I’m not telling this right.”
“Oh, Jack, Jack.” The words are always accompanied with a rueful grin, a helpless chuckle.
Who doesn’t like Jack?
He’s the clown, the one who always has a joke at hand—“Hey, did you hear the one about the Republican and the Democrat?” It’s made him popular, crowds gathering around as he enters the room; “Jack, tell a joke!” “Jack, over here!” And why not? Jack reasons. Life is easy, life is fun, why not make them laugh, (don’tthey see?), and heck, he’ll laugh with them (don’t they see that I have to laugh?), and he’ll laugh harder and louder than all of them because it’s all just so ha ha funny (don’t stop laughing, don’t stop, don’t stop), it’s all just a joke, nothing to it, life isn’t complicated and he’s happy and that’s why he’s laughing (crying) and he better make sure he has enough jokes because if he runs out he’ll start to think, and then maybe it won’t be so ha ha ha funny anymore, maybe it’ll become something else entirely (no no no no no don’t, stop, stop it stop it stop it).
So Jack laughs.
The interviewer laughs too when they meet. He can barely get a word in edgewise, gasping for breath as Jack throws joke after joke at him. Eventually, though, the man turns serious and asks him where he sees himself in five years, and for a moment—just a moment—Jack’s smile slips, and the mask cracks and something else peeks through; something dark, something scared. Then the mask is back and Jack laughs, and he thanks the man for his time but he doesn’t think he’s the right fit, and that’s the end of that and it’s not a big deal, didn’t like the guy anyway—who did he think he was, asking reflective questions like that? Jack doesn’t need reflection, reflection is for losers, reflection is for those who like what they see, who don’t reflect and see cracks and breaks and rust and (happy place, Jack, happy place).
“I . . . I’m sorry. I still feel . . . Let me put this differently.”
Jack’s a fighter. He’s been knocked down, more times than he cares to consider, but he always gets back up and keeps on moving. He’s persevered with a fiery will and an indomitable conviction, knowing deep down that nothing is stronger than him. His is a story of strength; of a fiery will and an indomitable conviction.
His is a story of perseverance.
He doesn’t know where he’ll be in five years, he tells the interviewer. He doesn’t know where life will take him. All he knows is that, no matter what comes, it won’t break him.
He can take it--
Jack frowns, looks up. “Sorry?”
“You still haven’t finished telling me about yourself.”
“Right. It’s that . . .” Jack fidgets. “It’s not that easy.”
She reaches for her glass of water, takes a sip. “You tell me that all you do is struggle, and then you tell me you’re a fighter. You tell me that you’re deep and perspective, and then you tell me that you tell jokes so you won’t have to reflect. Which one is it?”
He shrugs. “It’s not so simple.”
She writes something in her notepad. “Did you get the job?”
“I . . . what? Why is that relevant?”
She peers up at him through her half-moon glasses. “You keep mentioning it.”
“Oh. Right. It’s just . . . The question he asked. It intrigued me.”
“Where you see yourself in five years?”
“Not so much where as who. Who I’ll see myself as in five years.”
She leans back in her chairs, twirls her pen with her fingers. “Very well, Jack. Who do you see yourself as in five years?”
He stares past her at the white wall, not really seeing it. “That’s the question, isn’t it? I guess I’ll just be more of the same. More of . . .” he gestures vaguely. “More of me.”
“And who are you, Jack? Which story of Jack is the true one?”
“All of them, I think? But also . . . none of them. I’ve been all of them in the past; I’ll probably be all of them again. But they’re not . . . they’re not me.”
She nods, content to listen.
“Because,” he says, “I think I’m . . . more than that, no? I struggle and I fight, and sometimes I win and sometimes I lose, but that’s not all I am. I am . . .”