Lessons culled from reflection
A few weeks ago, I asked people older than 70 to send me “Life Reports” — essays about their own lives and what they’d done poorly and well. They make for fascinating and addictive reading, and I’ve tried to extract a few general life lessons:
Divide your life into chapters. The unhappiest of my correspondents saw time as an unbroken flow, with themselves as corks bobbing on top of it.
A man named Neil lamented that he had been “an Eeyore not a Tigger; a pessimist, not an optimist; an aimless grasshopper, not a purposeful ant; a dreamer, not a doer; a nomad, not a settler; a voyager, not an adventurer; a spectator, not an actor, player or participant.”
He concluded: “ Neil never amounted to anything.”
The happier ones divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases. They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points.
By seeing time as something divisible into chunks, they could more easily stop and selfappraise. They had more control over their fate.
Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at selfexamination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives.
It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape.
Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.
You can’t control other people. David Leshan made an observation that was echoed by many: “It took me 20 years of my 50- year marriage to discover how unwise it was to attempt to remake my wife. ... I learned also that neither could I remake my friends or students.”
On the other hand, some of the most inspiring stories were about stepparents who came into families and wisely bided their time, accepting slights and insults until they were gradually accepted by their new children.
Lean toward risk. It’s trite, but apparently true. Many more seniors regret the risks they didn’t take than regret the ones they did.
Measure people by their growth rate, not by their talents. The best essays were by people who made steady progress each decade. Regina Titus grew up shy and sheltered on Long Island. She took demeaning clerical jobs, working with people who treated her poorly. Her first husband died after six months of marriage and her second committed suicide.
But she just kept growing. At 56, studying nights and weekends, she obtained a college degree, cum laude, from Marymount Manhattan College. She moved to Wilmington, Del., works as a docent, studies opera, hikes, volunteers and does a thousand other things.
She acknowledges, “I did not have the joy of holding my baby in my arms. I did not have a long and happy marriage.” But hers is a story of relentless selfexpansion. I wonder how we can measure that capacity.
Be aware of the generational bias. Many of the essayists have ambivalent attitudes toward their parents. Almost all have worshipful attitudes toward their children.
I’m not sure how to explain this pattern, but I don’t think it’s pure egotism. Many writers mentioned that given their own flaws, they are astounded that their kids turned out so well.
Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them. For a time, our culture celebrated the rebel and the outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold. They were forever in revolt against the world and ended up sourly achieving little.
There are other patterns running through the essays. I was struck by the fact that almost nobody mentioned whether or not they were good- looking, although this must have been an important factor, especially when they were young.
Many people lament the fact that they had to make the most important decisions in their 20s, at the age when they were least qualified to make them.
People get better at the art of living. By their 60s, many contributors found their zone. Metaphysics is dead; very few of the writers hewed to a specific theology or had any definite conception of a divine order, although vague but uplifting spiritual experiences pepper their reflections.
Finally, the essays present disturbing quandaries. For example, we are told to live for others.
But one savvy retiree writes, “ Don’t stay with people who, over time, grow apart from you. Move on. This means do what you think will make you feel OK — even if that makes others feel temporarily not OK.”
Is that selfishness or hardearned realism? That one you’ll have to answer for yourself.
DAVID BROOKS writes for The New York Times.