“It’s very simple. As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at twenty-two, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at twenty-two. Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die, it’s also the positive that you know you’re going to die, and that you live a better life because of it.” –Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie
This weekend we are celebrating my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. Her big day was a few weeks ago, but you know, you gather when you can. I am a chronicler, of course, so I am inclined to get something in the books. And hey, 80 is big, so let’s mark it! To get her to talk about her past, however, much less to assess her life and open up about how she feels about it all, is like pulling teeth. When we record the kids singing her “Happy Birthday” (or celebrating other occasions), I often then aim the camera at her and ask her how she feels about turning 80 or if she has any thoughts about her life to this point, anything she would like to say to commemorate the occasion. “NO!” Every darn time!
As a guy who assesses his life on a daily basis and enjoys sharing his thoughts about most anything–but particularly about the life I have been given—I have such a hard time understanding her guarded mentality. I will be that old guy who annoys every grandkid and nursing home assistant whose turn it is to humor me, talking their ear off about my memories and any nuggets of wisdom I may have gained along the way.
Still, thinking about my mother-in-law turning 80 has me in a pondering mood. And since she won’t let me in about how this late milestone is playing on her heart and mind, I have done a mental transfer instead. I started imagining about how I will feel turning 80, how I will assess my life up to that signature year.
I am more than halfway there already and have a lot of habits and tendencies that have made well-worn paths in my mind. How much can I expect to change about my essence between now and 80? Are the final chapters of my story already easy to read? Or, perhaps, have I just wiped the slate clean? Maybe I can surprise even myself. I hope to keep it interesting, of course, but I can probably make a few educated guesses based on the current course. After all, I have been studying this subject pretty closely for a few years now!
The part of my vision of myself at 80 that gives me the most comfort is that I believe I will still be extremely happy. I am on a run right now of a solid 19 years of deep happiness. Many circumstances have changed during that time—and I fully admit to being blessed with a healthy family and a life of good luck—but the one thing that has not been threatened is my happiness and gratitude for my life. I am planning for that to stick with me until the end of the ride.
I am also quite sure I will still be writing—a big part of what keeps me happy—still trying to understand myself and my relationship to the Universe a little better. I will still be in love with books and the life of the mind, striving to learn and grow every day. I want to think I will still be up for adventures and new experiences. I will be doing my best to leave a positive impression on the world. I know I will cherish whatever family moments I have, perhaps even with grandkids if I am so blessed. These are the things I am most sure about my 80-year-old self.
The one thing I wish I were more certain of at that age is my degree of contentment and satisfaction with myself and my journey. I would like some measure of peace about my run, some feeling of acceptance of the life I have been given and what I did with it. I know that at 43, I am extremely dissatisfied with my achievements and contributions to the world. Don’t get me wrong, I like who I am. I can acknowledge some good qualities in myself and appreciate the man I have become. But to pass the test—graded by myself, of course—I will need to DO more good and maximize the potential of my gifts, not just be a good guy on the inside. There is a big difference there.
I imagine myself being dragged kicking and screaming to my death, begging for more time to accomplish more, give more, learn more. I want to think that by age 80, I will have done most of the things I plan to do—like publish books and share the wonders of this great world with my kids—and will not be so desperate to finish the job, pleading for a bigger share of the pie, a few more hugs or walks on the beach or hours to create.
If I am to arrive at 80 with peace and acceptance, there is a lot of work to do! I will die doing my best. That much I know. Maybe that is all there is. I will try to make peace with the process, too, not just the end result. What a challenge!
I am grateful to be alive in this moment, grateful for my chance to live my purpose and know the wonderful joys of existence. I look into my daughter’s eyes as I write this to you and think, “Oh, how I would miss this! Thank God for this great chance called ‘my life’.” I will savor it now and for however many more tomorrows may come.
How about you? How do you think you will judge your life when you reach 80? Open up your journal and your imagination. How is 80-year-old you feeling about yourself? What do you believe are the biggest factors that will determine that feeling? Companionship? Close family relationships? Career success? Financial security? Health? Evidence of a lasting legacy? Faith/connection with the Divine? Belief that you have lived authentically and with integrity? Completing your bucket list items? When you get to age 80, how willing and eager will you be to share your story and the lessons that life has taught you? Compared to how you are now, how much do you think your personality and outlook will change by the time you hit 80? Will you be more or less content? More or less happy? More or less satisfied with the impact you have made? More or less optimistic for the future of the world? If you could jump ahead and ask your 80-year-old self anything, what would you ask? What advice do you think 80-year-old you would give you about your life right now? Are you taking that advice? When you picture yourself that many years down the road, how much ground do you have to make up between now and then to become as satisfied and at peace with your life as you would like to be? Leave me a reply and let me know: How contented will you be with your existence at age 80?
Eat the dessert,
P.S. If this letter was helpful to you, please pass it on. It is not too late for any of us to change for the better.