I decided I would only take one book with me to Portugal. I chose Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey because I had recently started reading it which meant it was unlikely I’d finish it on my trip and it seemed somewhat of the perfect fit to take abroad. It had nothing to do with work. It was a lighter read than any of my philosophy or psychology texts, and the dust jacket promised an autobiography of adventures and living a life well-lived. What I had read of the first 10 or so pages seemed to deliver and so I threw it in my carry on and flew it a quarter of the way around the world.
I finished it somewhere over the Atlantic on my way back to the U.S. and I feel like that’s something that would make Mr McConaughey smile. On several night’s of my trip, after climbing volcanos, finding back-alley eateries with some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, or swimming in the ocean and cold-plunging in waterfalls, I would come back to our villa and read about McConaughey floating on his back on the Amazon river, wrestling a local in Africa, or living in an RV while traversing the US between films and I heard his lessons in ways I doubt I would have been able to had I been reading the book back home.
Shortly after watching the sun set over the Atlantic ocean (a sight most American’s won’t see, as the sun only rises over the Atlantic for us) I read the words, “One must leave home if he is to find home,” and I both fell asleep and woke up pondering the phrase. After standing in awe on the northern cliffs of Sao Miguel and gazing down at the crashing blue waters of the ocean as it thundered against the cliffs while the wind whipped around me, I read about the foolishness of the word, “unbelievable.”
All these little synchronicities that I looked forward to experiencing and felt deeply as I read.
I found myself deliberately putting the book down at exciting moments to have something to look forward to after the days adventures, and it never disappointed.
I bought the book after listening to an interview with Matthew McConaughey talking about his book with Jordan Peterson. I probably would not have listened to the interview were it not for the fact that I listen to podcasts on YouTube Premium at work and sometimes when one podcast ends, YouTube picks the next topic before I can. Thus, while working, I found myself listening to McConaughey talk with Peterson about his childhood and how he refused to classify it as traumatic.
The more he talked about his early years and his parents’ unique brand of love and parenting the more intrigued I became. Still, I was suspicious that the book could be anything other than another self-aggrandizing pat on the back by another famous person.
Sure, I enjoy movies as much as the next person, but I find myself suspicious of actors themselves.
While I’m sure that many of them are lovely people, there does seem to be a condescending, tone deaf detachment from reality that many of them possess that makes me hesitant to consume anything outside of roles as entertainers.
McConaughey’s interview convinced me to take a chance on him when I saw the book on display in a bookstore.
I bought it and said a silent, “Don’t make me hate you,” prayer.
The book itself is broken into parts one could also call chapters. Each part has a story or two or three from McConaughey’s life that illustrates the header and is often equipped with photos, slogans, poetry or pictures of McConaughey’s diary entries to drive it all home. It is easy to read and navigate.
McConaughey does have an easy way of writing that makes the reader feel familiar with him–like you could pick up the phone, call him up, and say, “Hey, Matthew, I have some questions about part five,” and he’d say, “Let’s hear ’em,” and genuinely listen.
Greenlights, by McConaughey’s definition are times in which life gives us the signs to go! to do! to move! to live! It’s about giving ourselves what we need to be able to recognize and catch more green lights in our lives and maybe turn a few red and yellow ones green along the way.
Most of his stories made sense and illustrated the points he was trying to make (though I do have some questions about part five). The stories were shocking, fun, honest, and sometimes eye-brow raising, but painted a colorful picture of a man unabashedly living his best, most authentic life. I was impressed not only by the convictions of young McConaughey, but also in the ways in which McConaughey chose to stay grounded through his rise to stardom. His grace with himself in times of change were also a great lesson. The kind of person described in the pages of Greenlights would likely have gone on to be just as successful selling tires as in Hollywood and I think that’s the ultimate lesson of Greenlights. It’s not about what you do but who you are that matters.
No, the vast majority of us cannot decide to take two years off from our jobs and turn down 14 million dollars on principle. But we can decide what we want and unapologetically map the path to that outcome. And if we determine that maybe we made an error along the way (Really, McConaughey? Cow-tipping every night?!) we can laugh at ourselves, turn the page, and get on with writing the rest of the story.
To that end, the true nugget of the book, for me, didn’t come from the typed pages. Rather it was presented in one of the scanned copies of McConaughey’s diary.
There, under some highlighted script, in handwriting almost too small to read in places there is a list of bulleted points. One says, “guilt is a cheap substitute for paradox,” and the next reads, “guilt is arrogant. It means we have taken sides and are sure we are right.”
As someone who has often struggled with guilt and regret, those words have continued to challenge me and probably will for a long time.
Greenlights didn’t make me hate Matthew McConaughey. Instead, it did challenge me to practice a little more self forgiveness and worry less about the outcome. It made me laugh, and sometimes cry, and even enhanced my own traveling experiences. I left home with a celebrity autobiography and found some genuine self-reflection and expansion through it’s pages. I don’t think we can ask any more from a book than that.