Saturday, June 25, 2011
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Reflections on my first half century: What I've learned so far.
So I turn 50 today. Fifty years old. Half a century.
Actually, I'm not that weirded out by the whole thing. 50 is the new 30, blah blah blah. The truth is I feel pretty good about it. Last winter, when it first hit me that this milestone was approaching I had a moment or two of angst. I was tempted to just ignore it, or acknowledge it and move on. But as the day approached I became more and more convinced that I wanted to celebrate it. I like my life and don't really feel my age. Most people who don't know me well, or haven't known me for that long, are surprised by my age. I get a lot of “No you're not!” responses when I tell them. Now I'm pretty aware that I don't look 18 any more (and those of you who knew me then can confirm that). But overall, I feel pretty good. I'm overweight, my blood pressure is a little high and I have bifocals now. My hair is receding but I have more of it than I thought I would by this age. I've accomplished many of my life goals and have failed at some others. I'm a published author and artist. I've taught at a college level. I still can't play the guitar.
I guess the good news is that I still have life goals to strive for.
I grew up with a generation that has become increasingly youth-obsessed. Old people aren't valued in our society the way they used to be. My lifetime has seen the most concentrated expansion of technology in history, and it continues unabated. We are so obsessed with the new, with the things that replace the old, that it is increasingly easy to move on and forget what came before. Unfortunately, this seems to apply to people as well. Fear of old age and death is part of that, obviously. I also think it's because none of us really know what it means to be old. We have images, of course, and the evidence of our own declining physical reality. But in our heads we feel the same.
So here I am, caught between still feeling like a young man, the person I have always been, and recognizing that I am fully ensconced in middle age. I have deeply held beliefs. There are days when I feel at peace with the world and there are days I still struggle with anger and melancholy. So, what have I learned?
I don't know anything and I still have a lot to learn. The first half of that statement is directly related to the second half. Obviously, I know stuff. I have a brain full of stuff. More stuff than a lot of people. But I'm very aware of all the things I don't know, and in the grand scheme of things, the vast infinite nature of the universe means that my little percentage of knowledge is nothing compared to what is out there. The good news is that I love to learn, so I still have my work cut out for me.
The most important lessons can't be taught or talked about. Whatever I have learned about living I can't convince anyone of until they learn that lesson themselves. The words we use for the most profound elements of our lives are, at best, limited metaphors. As a writer, as someone who love words, this is endlessly fascinating and frustrating. I think we write because on some level we believe that if we find just the right combination of words we will perfectly communicate our deepest truths and finally, finally be understood. But something is almost always lost in translation. If you know what I'm talking about, then you know. If you don't... I can't really tell you.
Life's too short. Too short for a lot of things. Love the people in your life. Right now. While they're here. Petty stuff can all too easily distract us from what's important, sometimes to the extent that we start to believe the petty stuff is the important stuff. It's not.
People come and go. That is not meant to sound cynical. Quite the opposite in fact. There have been many, many friends in my life, some for a long, long time now. There are others of more recent vintage. Some very important people in my life simply aren't anymore, not because they died (though that's true in far too many cases), or we have fallen out, or are fighting, but simply because life moves on. We would still be friends if they were here, and I still love them and the roles they played in my life. They taught me lessons and brought me joy and gave me gifts. They are all still part of my life. But, I have also continued to find new friends. There was an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Giles said something along the lines of, “I don't think people in their 40's really make new friends.” I disagree. Old friends are wonderful and know parts of you that new friends can never know. But new friends get to know the person you are now, after all the mistakes of youth. Refer to #3... Life's too short. Love the people in your life and learn the lessons you can from them. Life can take them out of your sphere as easily as death. Embrace and value your old friends, but open your arms and mind to new ones as well. Refer to #1... Life still has lessons to teach you and everyone you meet is a teacher.
If there's music on, dance to it, in your own head if nowhere else.
Not everyone thinks like you do. As a matter of fact, no one else thinks like you do. We all live in a story of our own choosing. Be willing to listen, really listen, to other people's stories and even more importantly be willing to change the plot of your own.
Defending your beliefs is very different from attacking someone else's. Try to know the difference. Though there are always exceptions, the shield is more important than the sword. Win or lose, know when the fight is over.
Of course the path can be lonely... You're the only one on yours.
In our earliest years we are programmed to learn by playing. Never stop playing. Never stop learning (See #1).
Try everything. If you still don't like beets, don't eat them. This applies to everything you try, but try everything.
There are positive things in the universe. There are negative things in the universe. At the end of every day ask yourself, “Today, did I contribute to the sum total of positive things, or the sum total of negative things.” Decide what kind of world you wish to live in, then contribute to that world.
Love is not a limited resource, but you really do have to give to get. It's been my experience that love has the best interest rate available.
Happiness is not a state one achieves. It is an ongoing process, and a decision we make. We have no control over what the world brings us. We do have control over how we perceive and interpret what the world brings us. Neither rose-colored glasses nor “through a glass, darkly” is completely accurate, but we can choose what lessons to learn (see #1 and #11).
Joseph Campbell famously said, “Follow your Bliss.” Easier said than done, but good advice nonetheless. If happiness is not common in your life or a decision you can easily make then perhaps the path you are following is not the one you should be on. Change it. Once again, easier said than done but, positive or negative, what do you really want in your life?
You are a part of everything, and everything is connected. The Eastern tradition of bowing is an acknowledgment of the sacred in other people. Tat tvam asi, or, in English, Thou Art That. What you see in everyone and everything is a reflection of yourself. The things you admire and love? That's you. The things you hate and despise? That's you, too. See #11 again for deciding which part of the world you want to be a part of, and #4 for recognizing the lessons the world is trying to teach you.
Okay, so I'm not so hot on that last one. Maybe in the next half century I'll work on that.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
"Flea markets remind us of how narrow and fixed our values are: What unimaginable things can have meaning to people! A man bought a bent and rusty 1983 Nevada license plate for one hundred schillings. One woman did a brisk trade selling single used, unmatchable shoes, and empty record album sleeves. Astonished, I turned to Nicholas and asked, “How much do you think she charges for that stuff?” He said nothing, but a moment later the thought came that valuing something meant understanding it better than the next guy. To me, it was absurd buying an old license plate–but what if the man who bought it knew better? Knew more about it, even if that knowledge seemed spurious or even insane to me. And even if it was worthless, didn’t his wanting it make his imagination broader and grander than mine?"