The idea for this post came to me as I was approaching my fiftieth birthday. Oh, I groaned to myself, I’m getting old. You can’t help thinking that as you approach your half-century mark. No matter how many times you tell yourself that you’re only as old as you feel or that age is just a state of mind, there’s no getting around it, the years are creeping up imperceptibly. No matter how much I didn’t want to admit it, the signs were all there: the failing eyesight, the creakiness in the limbs upon rising in the morning, the helpfulness of a nap in the afternoon.
It’s worth noting some dialogue from Ernest Thompson’s endearing play, On Golden Pond, when Norman, who is turning eighty, and Ethel, his wife of forty-six years, both sense their mortality. Ethel has just told Norman about a couple she met in the woods that has invited them over for dinner.
They’re a nice middle-aged couple. Just like us.
If they’re just like us they’re not middle-aged.
Of course they are.
Middle age means the middle, Ethel. The middle of life. People don’t live to be 150.
We’re at the far edge of middle age. That’s all.
Well, there you are. While I wasn’t verging on eighty, there’s still no denying it: Fifty is getting up there. People don’t live to be one-hundred either, or most of us don’t. So I’m coming up on the far edge of middle age, too.
Still, to some grand, aged people, fifty is just short of being a whippersnapper. And it’s not like I look that old. While I have friends whose hair turned salt-and-pepper in their thirties, my temples are just beginning to turn gray. People tell me, shocked when they learn my age, that I don’t’ look older than say, thirty-seven. Looking almost fifteen years younger is something. Chalk that up to good genes. When I was in my teens and twenties and loathed my boyish looks, I was told that someday I would treasure my youthfulness. Those people were right.
Nor do I act that old, either. I think that’s one key to staying young. When people learn my age and seem a bit uncomfortable, as if they were in the presence of some freakish Dorian Gray, I try to lighten things up by telling them that the secret to looking young is to just act like a juvenile delinquent. But, I do prefer the company and conversation of younger people. Once I was at a neighborhood party standing with a group of men—all of us the same age but for some reason they looked so much older than me—and they were discussing the importance of using fresh gasoline in their lawn mowers. I remember thinking to myself, God, please take me now. Much more intriguing to me are the moral discussion of teenagers who are so intent on sorting out right from wrong and black from white, or the wonderings of a child intent on choosing his or her favorite color (this is more important than we realize!) or wonder why the ocean just doesn’t drain into the ground. Sometimes I think these are better questions to ask presidential candidates than the ones fielded by today’s candidates. “Mr. President,” I wish the pundits and good-looking television reporters would ask, “can you please explain why the ocean doesn’t just get soaked up by the ground, and if you can’t, what gives you the idea that you know anything about foreign policy?”
So, I’m getting old. Well, older, and I began wondering when I’d start displaying some of that wisdom for which older folks are known. It hit me then, that if it was going to happen—and I emphasize the word, if— if I was going to turn into a wise old man, it wouldn’t happen overnight. It would be a gradual process. There would be a general grouping of experiences that merge into knowledge that eventually would coalesce into wisdom. Given that, I surmised that some of this wisdom should already be present, and so I began jotting down things that I’ve learned in my life. I was looking for real knowledge about life that came from my own experiences, not clichés or notions that could be boiled down to a bumper sticker. I was looking for the kind of wisdom I could impart to a grandchild sitting on my knee, or one of my daughters, grown and married, talking to me long-distance about her life.
Just so you don’t get the idea that I’m so full of myself, a lot of what I’ve learned throughout my life didn’t come about because I think I’m so smart. A lot of what I know came through mistakes. Big mistakes. Trial and error is a great learning tool that maybe we should begin utilizing in our schools.
I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind that perhaps what I began writing down—thoughts, notions, values, lessons learned—was pure drivel. Who would care, I asked myself, what some schmo could have learned in his paltry, uneventful life that would be worth anything to anyone? I think that’s a trap that we all fall into. I think we depend so much on the so-called experts in the world, that we have lost sight of the fact that we—everyday people who get up every morning, make a cup of coffee, and take it from there—know a heck of lot more than we’re ever given credit for.
We depend on experts to tell us how to raise our kids, our dogs, and our flowers. After we watch the president give a speech, or watch a major event in the world unfold in the news, there are always experts, many times men in a very expensive suits and nice hairdos, “analyzing” what we just saw and heard with our own eyes and ears. It’s as if the network executives think we are the most dim-witted lot they’ve ever run across. Do they honestly think that we are incapable of not only understanding complex issues, but also drawing our own conclusions? Nothing could be further from the truth, and for the life of me I don’t understand why we continue to let this go on.
When you think about it, there seems to be an expert for just about every aspect of our lives. My goodness, we even have so-called experts to tell us how to decorate our houses and cook a Thanksgiving turkey!
And sometimes the so-called experts are so dead wrong that their actions have catastrophic results. For a time I served as a speechwriter for the president of a mid-size computer company. The company was doing very well and had quite a bit of money in the bank. So the executives decided that maybe they should use the savings to make the company even more successful, including making some acquisitions of other companies. Good idea, so far.
Now, speechwriters, if allowed, will pretty much act like their client’s bartender, barber, and therapist, and at times I found myself sitting in the president’s office just listening. And what I heard made my eyes bug out. One transaction sticks out in my mind. The company was going to purchase another company worth eleven million dollars for fifteen million dollars. Everything was above board; I’m not accusing anyone of any shady dealings, but already you’re asking yourself why would anyone pay three million dollars more for anything, much less a company? You wouldn’t pay more for anything—a car, a suit, a candy bar. What’s the adage of buying stock?—Buy low and sell high? You don’t have to have an MBA from Harvard to figure this out. Long story short, a year later after a string of other decisions, the company was going down with all four engines on fire. There were massive layoffs of people who had performed their jobs beautifully but were no longer needed, and the executives—the same ones who made the catastrophic decisions in the first place—stayed on to continue running what was left of the company. This is a story that’s been played out time and time across the United States. The experts, the people in charge, did nothing illegal, unless defying the laws of common sense constitutes a crime.
But one wonders what would happen if the leaders of our country or our large corporations asked the everyday person on the street what he or she knew or would do about what was facing the country or the competition. Or you wonder what the chairman of the board of the likes of General Motors or IBM would learn if they went down to the assembly lines and shipping docks of their companies. Maybe nothing, or maybe it would be earth-shattering. The point is they don’t do it because many people in charge think they are in charge for the same reason the medieval kings thought they were rulers: Many think their positions came through divine right. Our egos are incredibly seductive, aren’t they?
We do see some politicians make a stab out of running around their constituents’ backyards, eating common food in diners, walking door-to-door soliciting votes, but most of the time it’s just for the television cameras. The only politician who I can think of in the past twenty years who really did that was the former Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil. The third most powerful politician in the country would go back to his old neighborhood in East Cambridge, Massachusetts and talk and listen. And he was voted repeatedly back in office, serving in the House of Representatives for 33 years.
I also think we are way too enamored with the rich and the famous, and more dangerously, the semi-famous or popular. We assume there is nothing in our everyday, humdrum lives that could possibly compare to the experiences of a Paris Hilton or a Donald Trump. We look at our neighbors and friends and think, if so and so is so smart, how come they’re not rich, as if the amount of money a person has acquired has anything to do with intelligence, and nothing to do with say, ethics, experience, morals, or common sense.
At times like this I think of my mother. Mom was the original day-care provider. When my sister and I hit our teen years and didn’t need all of her attention, she started babysitting other people’s kids. Times were tough for the family and raising kids was the one thing she felt she knew how to do, although there were plenty of other talents she had, she just didn’t realize it. Professional women started using Mom to take care of their kids during the day. And these professional, college-educated, successful women started seeing how Mom handled their kids, and at times I remember them asking her advice. So here was Mom, with her eighth-grade education, advising these other mothers with the knowledge and wisdom she had gained through her life. They saw Mom as an everyday expert based on her everyday experiences, and I defy anyone to say that she, or the millions of other loving parents in the world, can’t be considered experts in raising kids. I use to tell her she should write a book on raising kids, and she’d just laugh and smile.
And of course, anyone who goes through the Catholic school system knows that nuns have a way of hammering dictums into the supple minds of their young charges, and I was no different. Forty- some years later I can still hear a nun saying to me that there is a reason why God made me a person and not a chair. I’m not sure which commandment I had broken at that particular moment, but the outcome has stuck with me this long. Open your mouth. Speak up. Speak out. Do something. Don’t just sit there.
A lot of us have forgotten that we all are unique and therefore has experiences and knowledge and wisdom that no else can claim. Don’t we have some sort of responsibility to pass that along? It’s a stretch, but it’s like that business about how a butterfly alighting on a flower can ultimately cause an earthquake. What if one of us actually has knowledge that might actually affect the outcome of something important. That “something important” could be a historical event with worldwide ramifications, or a human being kept out of trouble.
I have worked as both a columnist writing about the exploits of being a father and a contributor on the op/ed page of the MetroWest Daily News since 1990. In both jobs there were times when I wondered just who the heck I thought I was to have the audacity to think I actually had anything to say to people about subjects ranging from politics to the weather. And, on occasion, I probably was completely justified in wondering that. But there were times when I’d get one or two calls or emails from people who said something to the effect of, “I’ve thought about that, too” or “Thanks for writing.” As human beings, that business about not being an island is true. We have shared experiences. Actually reaching out to one another, even if it’s only to one or two others, is something that, personally, I believe is a responsibility we all carry.
So, I’m a middle-aged man, or rather, a man on the far edge of middle age, who has both won and lost at love, had it easier than some and harder than others, been lucky at times, been successful at work and hit bottom and had to start all over. I’ve had dreams come true and some just fizzle. I’ve experienced the joys of my two daughters, and the grief of burying both my parents within the span of three years. Because of my Catholic upbringing, the practice of which I’ve since discarded, I stubbornly insist on the inherent good in all people despite what my eyes tell me almost daily. I believe in a Creator, simply because I see no proof otherwise. Those are just the highlights. Simple logic tells you if I have half a brain I had to learn something through all that.
I would urge anyone to do what I did. Sit down and write down everything you know. Take stock. See what you got in your brain and in your heart. It’s no different than taking stock in any other possessions; you’d be surprised to know what you have, how wealthy you really are. If that’s all I’ve done for you, well, frankly, I’d say that’s enough. You can stop reading here.
But if you’re interested in the shared experience of our lives, read on. The following is what I’ve learned so far in my lifetime. There are no guarantees here. I just happen to believe there is a reason God made me a person, and not a chair.
Most people are just doing the best they can.
Believe what people do, not what they say. People will tell you anything, but actions cannot lie.
Ninety percent of the population is waiting for the other ten to tell them what to do. You might as well be part of that ten percent.
You never know how you’ll react in an extreme situation until you’re in it. You’ll hear people say that they’d never do something—break the law, cheat on a spouse, run from an accident—but the best we can say is, “If I’m ever in that situation I hope this is what I’ll do.”
Just because a dog can’t see colors doesn’t mean that color doesn’t exist. In the same way, there may be other dimensions, other worlds, and our senses just aren’t developed enough to detect them…yet.
People will tell you, “it’s never too late,” but sometimes it is too late. You can only go back so far in time. Things—people, relationships, situations—change. Seize the moment. Seize the day. Don’t put off. Say you’re sorry. Climb that mountain. Take that trip.
Misery loves company, and I’ve never been able to understand why. It seems to me that if someone suffered, that person should do everything he or she can to ensure no one suffers the same way. But people aren’t like that. If they walked two miles in the snow, then you should, too.
You will have days or even longer stretches that will absolutely stink.
Every day do three things: Do something for yourself, someone else, and the world.
If you don’t treat yourself well, why should you expect it from anyone else? Respect starts with self-respect. Once you respect yourself, you’ll demand it of others.
Work to live, and not the other way around.
Most people can’t stand their jobs. Blessed are those who like their work.
We basically trade our time—our lives, really—for a salary. Figure out how much money you make a year, and that’s what your life is worth to your employer.
Business is not war. It’s business, and anyone who tells you differently is an idiot with some sort of Napoleonic complex.
Sometimes you’ll meet people who scare or intimidate you. Most people you’ll meet aren’t as tough as they want you to think they are. If they really were as tough as they thought, they’d be mercenaries in a war zone. However, if they really are mercenaries, look out.
Encourage your spouse in his or her passions. They might even leave for a while. But if you don’t, they will leave for good.
Partners should laugh together. It’s a serious warning sign when you cease seeing things together as being funny.
Opposites may attract, but there has to be something in common to make the attraction last.
Dreams can come true. Just don’t give up hope.
Read the New York Times every day for a year. After the year you’ll be a different person than when you started.
Our society puts way too much emphasis on a formal education. Travel and experience are better educators than any school. But you need school to fill in the blanks.
It really always does come down to money. That’s the way our society is set up. But wouldn’t it have been nice if another standard had been chosen? Think of where we’d be today if a person’s health or education were more important than the hospital’s or university’s bottom line.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. We put way too much emphasis on success to the point where people are afraid to fail. But sometimes failure has a way of putting us on a different track, or getting us to look at a problem or life from a perspective that we never thought of before. Mistakes and failure as just part of the process.
Good leaders also know how to follow, and they should never give an order that they wouldn’t do themselves.
Success in life comes from knowing what you want. Living is like sitting next to river and watching stuff float by. Only by knowing what you want will you know when something important floats by, and you should swim out for it..
Don’t give up your idealism, even though people will tell you to grow up. Once you’ve dropped your vision of what life or the world should be, you’ve pretty much resigned yourself to the status quo.
Everything is top-down. Whoever is at the top sets the tone, whether it’s the president of the United States, the head of a corporation, or the leader of any small group.
Don’t be afraid to play dumb. Our natural inclination is to show others how smart we are. That’s ego at work. But if you act as if you don’t know something, people sometimes will tell you more than they intended. You can learn a lot by acting like you don’t know anything.
Even by saying you don’t believe in God is acknowledging that God exists. The simple act of denying something is saying that you believe it exists.
To believe that the world was built in seven days or not believe in the fossil record is denying the Creator’s greatness. To reduce the universe to terms that a common person can understand is reducing creation’s beauty. There is nothing wrong with saying, “We don’t understand.”
To say you hate gay people or Jews or black people or any other human on earth is as ridiculous as saying you hate trees. The Creator made everything. Ours isn’t to judge. Ours is to marvel.
Prayer works. Don’t ask me how, but it does.
The Western world has done remarkable things with technology, but at the expense of our spiritual side. Remarkable is the person or the culture or even the product that can meld both technology with the spirit.
The only real sin in world is to try to become the very best person the Creator intended you to be. It’s a sin to not use your talents to their fullest.
Our very survival depends on qualities like hope, love, and kindness in the true Darwinian sense. Just as the polar bear developed its heavy coat to protect it from the snow, so have we developed personality characteristics that will ensure our survival. We are the only species capable (and sometimes it seem, intent) of destroying ourselves. Without these qualities to temper aggression, we’d surely destroy ourselves.
Give your teenager every opportunity to say, “No.” Can I help you? Can I take you and your friends to the mall? Do you want to have dinner? It gives them the control they’re looking for in their lives, but lets them know you’re still there if they need you.
Kids don’t have the right to privacy. Look through their rooms when they’re not there. Read their journals. Eavesdrop. You’re the parent, you have the right to know what they’re doing and if they’re in trouble. You’d be shirking your duties as a parent if you didn’t do otherwise.
No one’s parents were perfect and we all blame them for their mistakes, sometimes justifiably so. But eventually it reaches a point where you can’t keep blaming your parents and you have to take responsibility for yourself.
Every person alive wanted something from his or her parent that the parent wasn’t capable of doing or giving.
No one knows you like your mother. This isn’t to say she knows you best, just like no one else.
And no one can hurt you like your kids.
Teach your kids how to live by living your own life. In the “olden days” if the parents played golf or sailed a boat, the kids usually followed suit by becoming golfers or sailors. Somehow this got turned around.
Sometimes the sin isn’t in the sin, but not trying to fix it afterwards.
It goes completely against our nature, but learn to forgive.
Hate eats the hater alive, not the hated.
Labels: Action Bob Markle, actionbobmarkle, advice, age, Ernest Thompson, growing old, John Greiner-Ferris, MetroWest Daily News, old age, On Golden Pond, teachings, wisdom, writers, writing