The Final Answer
So, do we become entirely different people every decade or so? That’s the question I started with a few posts ago. I looked at lessons learned decade by decade in relation to my changing self. Of course I’d changed…how much, though, and could it be neatly measured in decade-long increments? To what extent had transformation of my-self, if any, been achieved?
I find I can’t parse my lessons so easily in the decades between 40 and 50, and 50 to 60 (well, 59 in February), so I reflected for weeks on those years as one big chunk. In this assertion I reveal my bias—that if you aren’t learning, you are really not changing decade to decade except in appearance. I am not saying this is negative or wrong. Maybe some people are “born knowing,” even “born-knowing-it-all.” It may be that some are born curmudgeons in the making, and they are fine with that and with themselves year after year after year. One thing I learned – change is scary unless you have some perspective on it, and that earning that perspective takes experience, exploration and practice.
Some things about my earthly personhood will never change in a general sense; i.e., I am rebellious and drawn to questioning. I have the same good and bad inclinations peculiar to myself since my beady baby eyes first saw the light of day. I mention this because sometimes people have difficulty reconciling liking and accepting their peculiar inborn characteristics with the phenomenon of personal transformation through time. I find the two compatible but I know some folks who prefer an either/or answer: yes, I am an entirely different person decade to decade, or no I am not because I was always a laid back person with the good ethics my parents gave me, etc.
As for myself, after forty, I began to experience losses even as I became more successful in terms of my career. People left the earth after having left a mark on me; some were innocent children. I was becoming more successful than I ever thought possible as some of my illusions about life – especially a good life – were disintegrating. What the hell?
I have learned you don’t have to hang on to anger when someone – or even life itself - hurts you to the core. Not such a hard lesson when one reviews one’s own occasions of thoughtlessness, of falling short. This happens and it always will. Believing in God or some divine logic or meaning doesn’t always help, not when you feel the ground shift under your personal life landscape. But…you do not have to live the pain indefinitely unless it’s a choice. What that pain will do if it’s retained, I do not know, but it’s never to the good, and we are free to choose. I don’t mean choose pain-free—that’s addiction of another sort. I mean, I believe it is possible to transform the pain into energy for good as opposed to not-good. Letting go of not-good, self destructive pain for me wasn’t always easy, and I learned it can take a couple years of working through…but you can take one step at a time for however long it takes until you’re in the clear. Baby Steps! (A funny movie, btw).
I learned how truly we are all walking wounded. This inclines me toward much greater sympathy toward others than when I was younger. I am fascinated by stories about other lives. Some days I marvel that we are all still here. By the age of forty or fifty, few have avoided a tour of the Dark Universe.
If you can’t get out of it, get into it. That’s the Outward Bound credo, and it can be an Inward Bound credo too. With infinite patience, Mother World teaches you how to move on if you are aware and respectful of this life and its inevitable rhythms. There are people around to help.
I once did a grief workshop for some people who were interested in the topic philosophically. I asked the question, “If, upon the birth of your child, you could sign a deal with some divine source that your child would never experience pain or suffering or disappointment would you sign it?” A few people said they would. I hope they think about that – what kind of person would that blithe and entitled child grow up to be?
Don’t be afraid of falling apart. Once you get to a certain age, it doesn’t matter if you get knocked out of commission for awhile. By this I mean the world will not end and you won’t make any headlines. If you did, everyone would care less the next day. Oddly enough, though, despite occasional concerns, I never did fall apart in a crisis. In middle age I realized I probably wouldn’t if I reserved daily time for reflection, not as a knower, but as a seeker.
I really can’t measure personal growth or change in specific lessons so neatly in my dotage, I mean, my maturity. Nearing six life decades, I just start knowing better generally, as if a little cosmic wisdom-juice has seeped through my skin. I choose my battles now with care.
I don’t terribly want or not-want. I don’t know how long I want to live. I watched a documentary of attractive, lucid people who lived to be a hundred years old with all their faculties intact. The stuff we dream of, right?
Nearly all had buried their own children. Life gives bountifully, and it takes away with a fierce logic only poets grasp. I know how wonderful advances in science are, but in fact I find as much, if not more, wisdom in poetry. I accept life’s terms whether or not they make any sense whatever to me. Rebellious as usual, I respond passionately over some matters, but I know for sure solutions are not all up to me and I cannot discern outcomes. I can only know what’s worth my time and attention in the face of many choices.
“Stand your ground” doesn’t need to involve any external artillery.
I learned that it is not worth being fearful about anything. Once you feel it, it’s best to release it as quickly as you can because it is a hope-sucker, and without hope, what’s life? Sadness can stay awhile because I think it teaches something, but fear is a thief.
“The unexpected is bound to happen, the anticipated may never come.” And the secret to not having worries – at least not too many—is to have ideas.
Getting older naturally means physical changes, and for me, a release from the vanities and competitions of the past.
That doesn’t mean I won’t take care of myself. I will, because I will that I shall be as useful in the world as possible. Drawing from a wonderful reflection on the last chapters of life from the late great Dr. Lewis Thomas, I search for ways to be uniquely useful. As he was dying, and as an atheist with no expectation of an afterlife, Dr. Thomas noted to a reporter that memories of one’s unique usefulness in life were more important, more precious, more lasting than any other goods or knowledge. I believed him when I first read that in 1993, and I still believe it today.
I learned that there is truth in these lines from my favorite Sinead Lohan song, Who Do You Say I Am? “When it’s over, it’s never over, and when it’s empty it’s never gone.” Lose a few people in life, relive some good long-ago memories, and you’ll know what she means.
I’ll end with the question with which I began: Are we entirely different persons every ten years or so? It’s less an argument than an invitation. You can go in many directions with such a question, but what’s important is to ask the question, and see what your own life has to say.