A moth goes into a podiatrist's office.
"What's wrong?" asks the podiatrist.
The moth replies:
Doc, I hate my career.
My marriage is failing.
My family is exhausting.
My relationships with my children are terrible.
Sometimes it's all too much to bear. I don't know where to turn.
"You need help," replies the doctor. "But you need a psychiatrist, not a podiatrist. Why did you come here?"
"Because," the moth replies. "The light was on."
Norm Macdonald, the Canadian comedian probably best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, and second-best known for being an amazing talk show guest, died this week.
This "moth joke" was his, and the rest of this article is about the incredibly poignant truth it's based on, and that Macdonald managed to share by telling it.
(Macdonald told it much better than I've paraphrased above; I've embedded video of him sharing it at the bottom of this article. Even though you now know the punch line, I think you'll like it.)
Macdonald was very talented and funny. As sometimes happens when celebrities pass on, I've found myself thinking more about him over the past day or two than I did when he was alive.
The moth joke, which went viral on Twitter after his death, is part of the reason why.
I can't do this justice; you really should watch the video below. The key to Macdonald's delivery is that he stretched the joke over more than three minutes, telling it with extreme specificity, digging through the moth's troubles, going through many twists and turns.
But it winds up, hilariously, right where you know it's going to end up--even though you've likely forgotten by the time Macdonald reaches the punch line. It only works because you know a simple thing about moths that no moth can ever change:
Moths are drawn to light. This moth went to the podiatrist's office because that's where the light was.
Macdonald was only 61 when he died. He'd apparently been battling cancer for nearly a decade, although he hadn't shared that news publicly. His death was a surprise.
But as almost everyone who knew and admired him seemed to share this joke, it occurred to me that we live in a world full of moths--metaphorically speaking, of course.
We think the world is uncertain, and sometimes it is. But we also live in a world of immutable truths, where people who can be counted on, for better or worse, to end their stories the only ways they can.
This can be a positive thing. Maybe you've started a business in which you've identified a true customer need, and as a result, no matter what else happens in the world, many of your customers will come back to you over and over.
It can also be a negative thing. Perhaps there are toxic people in your life who, despite your best efforts or theirs, will always wind up behaving in ways that are detrimental to you. There's simply nothing you can do to change them.
It can also be a personal thing. There are probably tendencies that you have, that no matter what else goes on in the world, you'll lean toward them: talents or passions--or even vices. So, you leverage them. Or you work to change them.
Or else, you acknowledge they're outside your control so you learn to ignore them or live with them. But if you can train yourself to identify them, you come out ahead.
And you act accordingly. You find yourself saying:
- I try not to worry too much when our biggest client talks casually about bringing more work in-house. I know how good we are, and I know from experience that he likes to float ideas like this just to see how we'll react.
- I'm going to triple down on our most popular product; it's the one that people always buy in the end.
- As far as I am concerned, Jane can work here forever if she wants; she's honest and I know I can rely on her.
Of course, the most indelible truth of all -- the thing we all can count on -- is that someday for each of us, like Macdonald, a day will come when our stories on earth will end.
We can only hope that in those fleeting moments afterward, when people pay us more attention than they might have while we were alive, that they can find meaning in what we've done and said the way people are suddenly finding meaning in this three-minute joke Macdonald told back in 2009.
Some things in life are surprises. Others are simply reliable. Sometimes that truth is poignant and hilarious.
All other things being equal, be like a moth. Go toward the light.