I turned sixty this year. It’s not just a number. It’s a sign that I’ve already spent way more time than I have left to spend. I can no longer muddle through with “I’ll do that someday, but first I have to…” ways of thinking. I need to make some decisions.
At least I think I do.
The temptation is to focus on answering the question, “what do I want to do with the next ten to twenty years?” I’ve never been good at answering that question. Even if I answered it, I doubt I’d be convinced by my own conclusions and I’m certain that if something I hadn’t thought of came along that looked interesting, then I’d do that instead.
Besides, I hate the idea of spending my time ticking off things on a bucket list. It seems like a displacement activity designed to distract me from the realities of the life I’m currently living.
If I do need to answer a question, it should probably be “who do I want to be over the next ten to twenty years?” That may seem odd, perhaps even inauthentic question to ask. Surely you are who you are?
Well, yes, but you’re not who you were so there must have been the opportunity for choice along the way.
Take a look at the young man in the picture. It’s 1983. He’s twenty-six years old and he and the woman he will marry five years later have come to Luzern in Switzerland as part of a coach tour around Europe. It’s a good trip. They’re seeing new things, feeling pretty good about themselves and filing away places they’d like to come back to. Switzerland is high on the list.
He’s just moved to London and taken up his first management job. He rides a motorbike to work. He doesn’t have a driving license. He lives in a small room with a baby belling in the corner and a toilet down the hall. He’s enjoying the novelty of London, with its theatres and cinemas, its concerts in the park and its unceasing flow of people.
He has no idea what’s ahead of him and hasn’t really spent much time thinking about it.
I know all this because I was him.
I’m not him anymore.
It’s not just that I’m twice as old and 50% heavier than him. Nor is it only because, unlike him, I’ve worked all over the world and spent more than a decade in Switzerland.
He’d never had a wife. He’d never had anyone he loved die. He’d never experienced physical pain. He’d never had to wonder if he had what it took to build a life in which he and his wife could be happy and secure.
The man I am now understands the man I was then far better than he ever understood himself. Sometimes I’d like to go back and slap him and say, “Pay attention. These years are important. The people around you are important. Savour them. In a few decades, you won’t remember the details of the projects that ate your nights and weekends but you’ll remember the people you worked with, the meals you had with friends and the new places you went to with your wife.”
The man in the photograph didn’t know what he had. He wasn’t present enough. He wasn’t grateful enough.
He was young. I am not. I should know better. I should be taking accountability for who I am and for shaping who I will become.
For the past decade or so, I’ve been living what Dido would call a “Life For Rent” I’ve been moving from one “temporary” thing to another, putting down no roots and making no plans, hardly noticing that I’m spending days that I’ll never get back. My only tether to reality has been my wife and I’ve spent far too much time away from her.
It’s time to stop renting. As the chorus of Dido’s song puts it:
“But if my life is for rent and I don’t learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
’cause nothing I have is truly mine”
I want a life that is connected to people and places that I care about. I want to be involved in the community I live in and earn the right to own its joys and to confront its problems. I want to be present until I no longer have that option.
I hope that, if there’s an eighty-year-old version of myself, he’ll look back at the choices I take this year and say, “Well, at least you didn’t screw that up, Took you long enough though.”
If you’re not familiar with Dido, take a listen to her in the video below.