The first thing that you will take notice of in Greenlights is the layout. Rather than a conventional memoir or self-help book, it’s a series of short stories and life lessons punctuated by journal excerpts, photographs and poetry. It’s lively. It’s engaging.
I’ve always been a person who finds great difficulty in sitting down for long periods of time. Reading as a young boy was a great joy of mine and an exception to that rule. Percy Jackson and Warriors on a car ride or under the covers at night. It was about stories, I loved it. As I moved into my teen years I lost that. It became an exercise in patience rather than a source of entertainment. I was preoccupied with other things and I read to absorb and learn, not to enjoy and laugh. Greenlights has been nostalgic and almost euphoric for me. I tried to do other things—to put down the book, but I was enjoying it. McConaughey’s writing hooked me—and here’s why.
Greenlights, as the name suggests, is about those traffic lights that populate our lives. You’ll hit red lights and yellow lights as you go. Then it’s green and you’re on your way. In the course of life there are experiences we have, lessons we learn and people we meet who can be greenlights for us. That’s affirmation and encouragement; it’s the things that keep us going and that animate our lives into a story worth reading.
McConaughey, in reflecting on his own journey, is trying to help us catch more greenlights. To recognize the everyday things that are important and to keep “livin’ ” and moving ahead in a way that brings fulfillment. At the same time, it’s about seeing the silver—or rather, the green lining in the reds and the yellows. The hardship we go through. The ways in which we are tested and beat down by life. These often end up shaping us as people and changing our lives in ways that we wouldn’t want to undo. Given enough time, red lights turn green.
An enduring bit of wisdom, punctuating the stories of McConaughey’s life is this phrase: “get relative with the inevitable”. That’s facing down the things in your life that are happening and are going to happen whether you like it or not. It’s living with gratitude and optimism so that you can pause and recalibrate. We have to make do.
We have to live our lives well and work on ourselves and not shy away from what is hard in the face of the inevitable.
Greenlights stands out as the most down-to-earth, the most genuine exploration of life that I’ve had the privilege to read. Not an exercise in heady cerebral thinking and academic analysis—McConaughey’s Greenlights is the result of honest, boots-to-the-ground lived experience; and that’s why it’s so refreshing. It’s the product of decades of journaling, of talking to oneself about the comings and goings of life as they happen. It’s a close look at what it is to live life and to grapple with lessons, meaning, identity, spirituality and purpose.
In an age of social media obsession and political turmoil, stark division and intense disconnection; narratives dominate our everyday lives. Everyone is selling something and we are all too eager to buy in and escape our hardship and abdicate our responsibility. We’re all trying to fill the void we’ve found within ourselves. The narrative comes to direct us and define us. In dispensing with dogma, posturing and accusation, Greenlights returns to narrative in its richest, purest, most distilled form: storytelling.
McConaughey’s writing is not a rulebook on how to act and how to be. It’s a story. A story that he lived and that we walk beside him in reliving. From his youth growing up in rural Texas to the first steps of his acting career we see first hand the world which he inhabited. The family dysfunction and the rites of passage, the hardship endured and the lessons learned. The adventures across Europe riding motorcycles, the treks through mountains and rainforests and deserts. The finding of love and the building of family. The little things in life that mean so much and how we might live so as to not miss them.
It’s an intensely optimistic book; a celebration of life and an ode to gratitude and self-dedication. McConaughey writes in his preface that he hopes it will be “medicine that tastes good” and at a time when loneliness, nihilism and illness are perhaps more palatable than ever, Greenlights is just that.