“Happiness is not a goal….it is a by-product of a life well-lived.” –Eleanor Roosevelt
Heroes are hard to come by in this world. This week I have had the amazing good fortune of having two conversations with people I hold in the highest regard. The effect each conversation has had on me has been profound. My heart has been left so humbled and grateful to have both of these monuments in my life. My head, meanwhile, has been left spinning. At the age of 42, as I struggle to plot the course of my own life and to leave a legacy of value, these conversations put me face-to-face with two people whose marks have been made and whose life satisfaction seems real. I am left wondering, “What will it take to make ME a contented old man?”
My Mom turns 70 today, and my siblings have all surprised her this week by showing up at the family lake cabin where we made so many fond memories as children. It is great for all of us, of course, but it is a real tribute to my Mom. She has done such a brilliant job of “doing Life,” especially of being a wonderful wife and mother. I knew I wouldn’t get much one-on-one time with her this weekend, so I called her earlier in the week for an interview. This was the essence of my questioning:
- How do you feel about turning 70?
- How has your life been compared to how you pictured it when you were young? How about compared to when you were 42?
- What do you wish you would have done?
- What have you done that you are glad about and would do again?
- What do you still have left to do?
- Are you happy? Are you content? Are you fulfilled?
The really cool upshot of the whole interview was that I learned much more than I thought I would. She was incredibly forthright and thorough, and I feel like I know her much better as a result. It was the kind of conversation almost every adult wishes they could have with their aging parents. I wish I had it all on video.
Speaking of that, this weekend I had another one that I wish I could have recorded somewhere other than in my fuzzy mind, though truly it will never leave my heart. My great-uncle Lloyd, who recently turned 90 and is easily one of my few favorite people from my lifetime and a true role model and hero to me, came over to visit my family and wish my Mom—his niece—a happy birthday. I pulled up my lawn chair right next to his and started gently grilling him with all of the same questions I had asked my Mom. He, too, was a willing interviewee and treated me to many wonderful stories and insights. I cried behind my sunglasses as we said goodbye. Until we meet again….
The common denominator from both conversations—and the thing that is really stuck in my mind—is the depth of their contentment with the lives they have lived. “I’m really happy with what I’ve done in my life,” my Mom said to me. “If this is all I got to do in life, I would be fine.” Those words keep ringing in my ears. They have resonated down through my chest and all through my system. Over and over I hear them. I can see the look in my great-uncle’s eyes, too, which said the same thing. He seems so clear about the fact that he has had a wonderful life and has accomplished the things he set out to do, and more. Satisfaction. That is the essence of it. Contentment.
How the heck did they pull that off??? How can I get a piece of that before my story ends? My next birthday will be 43. That leaves me a little over 27 years to get to my Mom’s age, and 47 to get to my great-uncle’s 90. I know that sounds like a long time, but I can already tell how fast the time goes and how it only seems to speed up as I get older. What am I going to do to change things? How will I achieve that level of contentment, that life satisfaction between now and then? Because, let’s face it, I am far from satisfied right now.
I am happy. Wildly so, in fact. I wish everyone in the world could feel my kind of happiness. I am grateful every day for who I am and the countless blessings in my world. It is a delight to be me.
But I am NOT content. I am not satisfied with my life. As much as I am grateful for it all, I want so much more. I have so much more that I feel called to do. I want to change the world in a big way and use my blessings to their absolute fullest. I want my gifts to be given, to leave no stone unturned when it comes to using my talents for the greatest good. There are books that I want to write. There are speeches I want to deliver. There are hugs I want to give and faces I want to light up. There are dreams—my own and of others—that I desperately want to see come true. If I don’t do better than I am right now in terms of knocking things off my list, I will die a discontented old man. Happy? Yes. Satisfied? No way!
The thing is, I don’t know if I am even capable of contentment. That sounds sad, I know, but it is true. I understand myself and my mind. I am a driver. I am constantly trying to improve, trying to learn and grow and become better-equipped to handle all of the big things I want to do. My dreams are big—most would probably say too big—and I know that I won’t be satisfied if I don’t give my best effort toward achieving them. I hope that there will be some level of satisfaction if I know in the end that I did my best, even if I don’t reach all of my goals and dreams. The list seems endless, though, so I have my work cut out for me. I will definitely be the guy who has to be dragged to his grave kicking and screaming. “I just have a few more things I need to do! Please???” I play out a little version of that every night before bed and every Sunday night before the new week begins again. I don’t really know any other way.
So, when I get to age 70, will I face it with the same grace, gratitude, and acceptance that my Mom is facing it? How about when I get to 90: will I be rightfully proud of my path and my legacy the way Uncle Lloyd is? Will I get there and say, just like my Mom, “If this is all I got to do in life, I would be fine.” It is really difficult for me to envision that, frankly. It is the challenge before me, however, one that I must rise to. To put it mildly, I have A LOT to do. I better get started!
How about you? How content are you right now in your life, and would you leave satisfied if today was your last one? Open up your journal and reveal yourself. How well have you “done Life” to this point? Has your life lived up to your expectations for it? Are you proud of yourself for the way you have traveled your path? Are there specific accomplishments that you hang your hat on—e.g. career milestones or family successes—or do you think of this issue more in terms of what type of person you have been along the way? If you died today, how satisfied would you say you are with the life you have lived? Put a number on it from one to 100. Now picture yourself at age 70? How content with your life do you think you will feel then? How about at age 90? Did your projected numbers go up or down from your current number? Why? What would it take to get your satisfaction number to 100 before you die? What is the biggest thing you can do today to move in that direction? Are you willing to make a commitment to that? Who in your life is your role model or hero? What makes them so? How satisfied do you think they are? Leave me a reply and let me know: “What will make YOU a contented old man or woman?”
Stake a claim to Happiness,