Remembering My Greenlights with Matthew McConaughey

Have I felt directionless my whole life? When you feel directionless, it feels like your life has amounted to nothing. But this is not true. Life has been good and gifted me with many great experiences and learnings, what McConaughey refers to as greenlights. He helped me remember this and to just keep livin.

Here, I reflect on greenlights from my own experience, as well as the greenlights that shined bright after reading my favorite stories and poems from McConaughey’s memoir.

My Greenlights

When I was three…

My mom was crying in the car. From the car seat, I told her that “mommy says everything’s going to be alright.” My mom’s mom was dead at the time and she used my mouth to send her daughter a little hug from above. I stayed out of the way and let love pour through me, as children do. Greenlight.

When I was ten…

I thought I was having a heart attack. Anxiety hit me like a sack of marbles in the chest—from where I don’t remember. I do remember, however, running into my parent’s room and asking, is it possible for kids to have heart attacks?

As you can see, I am sensitive. At a young age, I thought this was a bad thing, calling it OCD and trying to find something wrong with it. Now I’m learning to use it as a power. There’s a lot of love behind this “thing” of mine. Get relative, Matthew says in the book. Greenlight.

When I was fourteen…

I built a treehouse with my friends (not as cool as McConaughey’s treehouse) and accidentally lit it on fire in the middle of the night when my friends and I were sleeping in it. Long story short, there were ants coming from the base of the tree and I tried to burn them out. It worked—too well.

My friends panicked and ran away but I got excited, seeing it for what it was: a thing on fire, with everybody out of it, not too close to any homes, and quite glorious: the sleeping bag that melted as I pulled it from the inferno, the propane lantern that exploded as my dad and other neighbors approached it with hoses, the sirens of cop cars and firetrucks waking up the sleeping suburb, and the frightful neighbors who gathered around.

It was terrifying, but not bad—something to be remembered. I could stay present even when “bad things” were happening, and I could appreciate things as they were happening by not worrying about what might come next, like a good grounding. Greenlight.

When I was eighteen…

I had just recovered from terrible acne by taking Accutane (like McConaughey). I had also cultivated all of my learnings from the hundreds of inspiring, passionate, and romantic movies I had seen (including Lost In Translation). This gave me confidence to ask the most beautiful girl out within a 20-mile radius of where I grew up.

I was not a popular kid (unlike McConaughey) and kept quiet at school, but I brought the most beautiful girl to prom (like McConaughey). Everyone’s mouths dropped. Taking risks from the heart is a good idea. Greenlight.

When I was twenty-four…

I had a friend who put me down more often than he lifted me up. I wanted to move to California or Florida to experience something new. When I told him this, he said, you’ll never do that. But I kept pursuing it, applying to jobs I was under-qualified for and jobs that were on the other side of the country.

Someone took a leap of faith on me in Los Angeles, flew me out, took me out, and walked me around the office in Studio City across from Universal Hollywood. They sent me an offer shortly after I returned home from the interview trip.

I could realize dreams—like living in a distant land where my favorite things were made (movies)—and unfriend people who were holding me back in real life, not just on Facebook. Greenlight.

When I was twenty-six…

When I was 26, I found a family on a farm to host me through WWOOF outside Santiago, Chile, and went there without speaking to them first. I spoke very little Spanish, got off the plane, and hopped on a bus. Everyone I asked was unsure of which bus was the right bus so I just got on the one that felt best.

I was the only gringo on that bus and the stop I wanted seem to never come. Little town after little town, but not my farm town. Would it ever come? It went on like this for hours, similar to McConaughey’s study abroad experience in Australia where the host family “from Sydney” drove past Sydney, then further, and then even further, into the unknown. But he stuck with it and it worked out. I stuck with it too and it worked out. The farm trip was not my idea of fun but I learned a lot, like how to be with myself—without television or an english-speaking human. Just a book and a journal. Greenlight.

When I was 28…

I traveled with a group of 30 people who worked remotely for tech companies like myself to South America, Africa, and Europe. I loved traveling but not large groups of people. I took a leap of faith and it was one of the best years of my life. Take leaps of faith. Do things that excite you and feel uncomfortable at first. Greenlight.

When I was 30…

I started reading spiritual teachings and meditating regularly and had a spiritual awakening. I truly felt born again. The world felt new, and not in a fun way. My eyes hurt, it was hard to walk, it was hard to talk, and the old me had trouble understanding this new me. All I could do was eat a bit, rest, and watch spiritual movies and YouTube videos to try to understand what was happening to me. This was not medical.

It was an intense experience that sent me spiraling into a pit of the void which forced me to remember what I had forgotten: that I can make choices but I am not in control. (Paradox equals truth. McConaughey points to this as well in his memoir.)

Who is in control? Me, but the me from above, a child of God, made fun and funky in this human form. Greenlight.

When I am 33…

Sitting here now, I realize that now is always here. These are also the words on a painting I bought from an artist in Venice Beach. The words rest above a wide-eyed, three-tooth fish that seems to be stuck in a cube but is more full of life than any other fish in the ocean.

I’ve made the mistake of thinking about this saying—now is always here—and got too mental about time, the meaning of time, and what it means to live moment to moment. That’s all head stuff. Philosophy and mindplay. What it means is that I can relax into my situation, here and now, and let the target draw the arrow (a metaphor McConaughey uses in the book). I have my target and the arrow will follow. Greenlight.

Thank you, Matthew, for inspiring these reflections. And now for some of my favorite parts in the book…

Greenlights from Matthew’s stories

My favorite stories in Greenlights were about Matthew’s childhood. The stories reminded me of the “dysfunctional yet vibrant” stories in The Glass Castle memoir by Jeannettee Walls.

My favorite story in Greenlights was not so dysfunctional or vibrant. It was more nostalgic. As a kid, Matthew became consumed with building an epic treehouse (page 46–49). I melted into that story like I melt into a good movie.

Here are some other stories I loved in Greenlights and what they taught me…

Mom and dad kitchen fight

page 19–21

The story about Matthew’s mother and father getting into a fight at the dinner table—his mother calling him “fat man” and threatening him with a knife, his dad flinging Heinz ketchup at her like a “mocking matador”—ended in them making love on the kitchen floor and made me realize that all families are different and one family is not better than another.

Stern and joyous dad

page 37–39

Stories about Matthew’s stern father who whupped him to teach him a lesson (not to lie), took ballet lessons, and had euphoric drinking parties with his buddies—like the time he drove 112 miles home from a friend’s party in the wee hours of the morning and drove back with Matthew’s half-asleep brother to win a bet that Pat could pee over his friend’s head—helped me remember that people are complex and not to be labeled as one thing or another (abusive).

Dad and the cockatiel

page 44–46

The story about Matthew and his father living in a trailer one summer with a cockatiel named Lucky who would “roost on his [dad’s] shoulder while he walked around, and perch on his forearm while he petted her” ended in his dad resuscitating a long-dead Lucky who drowned in the toilet with mouth-to-mouth and helped me remember that love and goodwill carry powers that defy medicine, science, and logic.

Dad and the acne lawyer

page 50–54

The story about Matthew’s mom telling him to use Oil of Mink to clear his acne but it having the reverse effect and compelling his dad to contact a lawyer who said “damn right, we got a case” made me realize that Seinfeld-like moments happen in everyday life.

That goddamn Oil of Mink company! We’re gonna sue em and make some money off this whole deal. I mean, look at you, son, that product should have never been given out to you, boy, and that lady Elaine, she shouldn’t have been telling your mother to give it to you! I’m tellin ya, we got a case. page 52

I also took Accutane to clear my acne. The only side effect I had was dry skin and I’m grateful for the drug. Matthew had many more side effects—bleeding lips, arthritic knees, headaches, and hair loss—which he was “more than happy to live with to get rid of my Oil of Mink-induced acne.”

The foreign exchange program

page 64–84

The story about Matthew traveling to Australia as an exchange student, staying with a neurotic family for far too long, and having one of the most important experiences of his life rather than one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life, helped me remember that it’s vital to persist and “get relative” when you find yourself in an unpleasant or complicated situation that you committed to.

And while I was going crazy, I kept telling myself that there was a lesson I was put there to learn, that there was a silver lining in all of it, that I needed to go through hell to get to the other side, and I did. We cannot fully appreciate the light without the shadows. We have to be thrown off balance to find our footing. It’s better to jump than fall. And here I am. page 83

Dad dying making love

page 110

Like the cockatiel story, the story about Matthew’s dad dying from a heart attack after climaxing during sex with his mom—and after telling him and his brothers throughout life, “Boys, when I go, I’m gonna be makin love to your mother”—helped me remember that we can call the shots in life if they come from a place of love.

Self realized journal entry

page 147

The journal entry between the story of Matthew realizing he was famous and the story of him going to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert to realize his true Self helped me remember that celebrities can seem unrelatable but are connected to the same truth as me and you.

Shortly after his “walkabout” at the monastery in New Mexico and balancing out his “noise-to-signal” ratio (too much noise from recent fame), he had his first “wet dream” mentioned in the book where he saw himself on the Amazon River. He went there and, on the twelfth night, had a profound realization that, in my experience, also followed from asking the question Who am I?

Who was I? Not only on this trip but in this life. Now naked and stripped down to nothing, I was only a child of God, and nothing more. Soaked in a cold sweat, I vomited until there was no bile left in my belly, then passed out form exhaustion. page 156

The African debate

page 198

The story about Matthew siding with a man on one side of a debate in Africa, and the man he sided with scolding him for siding with him, telling him that “it is not about right or wrong, it is ‘do you understand?!’” helped me remember what I have learned while working with VC-funded tech startups: that it is better to understand someone than to win an argument.

“The justice it deserves” poem

page 209

The poem at the end of the story about Matthew’s legendary African adventure where he traveled to distant villages, wrestled a large tribesman, and contemplated the book Owning Your Own Shadow, helped me—someone who thinks about his next move right after moving somewhere—realize that you need to stay somewhere until you feel at rest there, then you can go.

To appreciate a place fully, a man must
know that he can live there.

When all his discomforts disappear and
he lets himself be owned by the place.

He needs to customize and localize
himself to the place he visits, 

to the degree that he knows he could
dwell there forever.

Then and only then, is it truly
acceptable for him to leave.

Wherever you are, give the place the
justice it deserves.

Living this realization, along with the other realizations and lessons Matthew’s memoir revealed, is how I want to thank Matthew. It’s how I want to thank the awareness I have to just keep livin, take risks, and do a little dance along the way. 🕺

Thanks for the book, dad!

By Robert Gibb

Practicing screenwriting and writer @ Scene Lift

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