That Box of Chocolates We Call Life

A box of chocolates.


“My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.’”

—Forrest Gump

I was brought up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin by an American father and a German mother. My parents had met after World War II when my father, having survived combat in France and Germany, was a civilian worker for the U.S. occupation. My mother was raised in the medieval city of Hannover where her father, a master confectioner, owned a shop that sold candies and pastries.

Throughout our childhood, my sisters, brother, and I would receive holiday packages from our grandfather containing a variety of candies—marzipan bars, tiny chocolate bottles filled with liqueur, tins of strong, black licorice, Easter bunnies filled with jellybeans, and all manner of St. Nicholas’s. And no matter the holiday, the package would also be loaded with lots of chocolate bars—mostly bittersweet.

I was always disappointed that there was rarely any milk chocolate, something as Americanized children we loved. Inevitably, the bittersweet chocolate was the last to be eaten, but given how mad we were for candy, we eventually ate it, too.

I recall being told that I’d get accustomed to eating the bittersweet and that with time learn to like it or even prefer it. However, I wasn’t so sure about that.

Life, like chocolate, can also be sweet or bittersweet. For instance, success is sweet, and disappointment is bitter. Although we hope that most of life will be sweet, it is, in fact, mostly bittersweet. What we identify as good and what we term bad are usually intermingled.

They can’t be separated. As children we eagerly anticipate reaching adolescence when we’ll have more autonomy and can do “grown-up” things. But along with adolescence comes a loss of innocence, the ability to play and fantasize, and with that, self-consciousness and awkwardness. Good and bad mixed together.

When we reach adulthood and it’s time to say goodbye to the home that has provided sanctuary for us and to leave the loved ones with whom we lived, we are saddened. However, we’re also excited to be on our own and starting our own families. Loss and gain. Bad and good.

And so, it is with every period of life. It is up to us to acknowledge this and to deal with it as best we can.

The third chapter in the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes begins with the well-known verse, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” What follows is a list of dichotomies that speak to the notion of life being positive and negative. For example, a time to be born and a time to die; to kill and to heal; to weep and to laugh; to mourn and to dance; to seek and to lose; to keep and to throw away; to love and to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

For every failure there is a gain. For every success, a loss.

When it seems we now have only a small portion of our allotted time left, we can find ourselves retreating into memories of the past, perhaps to happier times or to periods when we felt we had more agency and were still vital and healthy. There is nothing wrong with that. Who doesn’t want to be reminded of what it was like to be younger? But let’s not fool ourselves—the past is still that box of chocolates and was also filled with pain and disappointment.

However, if we remain there too long, we can begin to feel irritable and discontent about the present, which then keeps us from living fully in the moment. For it is only in the here and now that we can process the gains and losses of the past, as well as those with which we now live. It isn’t easy being a senior, even if one has good health and financial security.

This is where a teaching from 12 Step programs is helpful: “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” To be emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually healthy we must accept our past, our present, as well as what we believe our future will be.

It is then that we can get on with the business of living, however bittersweet it may be.

Stephen Sinclair lives in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Earlier in his life he enjoyed a career in show business while working out of New York and Chicago. A career as an ordained Unitarian Universalist parish minister and a hospital chaplain followed. Most recently, he worked with people experiencing homelessness and is a weekly volunteer visitor at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Here are more articles on how aging is bittersweet:

Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole—A wonderful book by Susan Cain

Bittersweet Moments—Past, Present, Future: Life is filled with bittersweet moments, times of pleasure that at the same time may be accompanied by suffering or regret. Although we may be more aware of such occasions as we get older, I am convinced that since we are constantly aging, we will experience many such moments in each decade of life.

Jennifer James on the Bittersweet Reality of Being 80: What you gain at 80, says Jennifer James, “is yourself. It sounds self-centered—but it’s that you have one life.”

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