What I want: looking back, and looking forward

I think you’ve written a wonderful personal manifesto for building yourself a good life.

I’m glad I asked you what you wanted. I want some of the same things, which tells you (perhaps) that some of those personal goals are a lifelong journey. Like the commercials say, Never Stop Improving, right?

I was going to suggest you print out your post and hang it somewhere you can see it, so you’ll often be reminded of what matters most to you in life. That reminded me I once did something similar. Nearly 16 years ago I went through the exercise of creating a personal mission statement. Re-reading mine, it definitely catches some of what was in the air back when mission statements were all that. I might’ve even started with someone’s template, like maybe this. Still, though, it also does reflect much of where I was in my life when you weren’t quite five years old.

IIRC, I had it on my office wall until we renovated our house and somehow it got packed away. It looked roughly like this:

Personal Mission Statement 1998 3

I think I did a really good job on some of that stuff. (For example, I wrote it six weeks before I started to lose weight — I hadn’t run a 5K, didn’t even own a bike then.) Other points, less so — not yet, anyway. Every day offers me new opportunities to do better!*

It also occurs to me that maybe I had a few more strengths than I gave myself credit for at the time.

It’s fascinating to have these snapshots in time. They show you how far you’ve come.

Fifteen years ago, I hadn’t studied Shakespeare or Homer; I hadn’t read Borges or Flaubert or even Rousseau. I knew practically no world or religious history, no philosophy, practically no biology. I hadn’t been to Europe. I don’t even think I was a Teaching Company customer yet — much less Coursera. All those lectures I’ve listened to and termpapers I’ve written over these years: they have absolutely changed my life. I actually have been learning and growing most days, and searching for understanding (if not always finding it <grin>)!

I didn’t mean to get sidetracked with my usual paean to the liberal arts.** Here’s what I meant to say: There’s an arc to a life, and it’s easy to notice the big changes — you get married, you have a child, he grows up and goes to college and maybe gets married. But you don’t always notice the little changes — in what you care about, what intrigues you, how you feel about yourself. That’ll be another nice thing about our shared blog, I hope: for us both to see those changes. It’s a good reason to keep a personal journal of whatever kind.

I am not avoiding your question.

So what do I want now?

Probably the thing I want most is one I can’t control: I want you to have the happy and meaningful life you want.

It seems to me you’re moving in the right direction(s)! So I’m very hopeful… but like most parents, I’m holding my breath. My child’s successes and times of happiness fill my heart, my child’s setbacks and hurts pain me more than my own. I’m sure Mom would say all that, too.

Years ago I would’ve felt guilty telling you that. Pressure, right? But it’s just the truth. I figure as long as I’m rooting for you to find your happiness your way (whatever that turns out to be) it’s OK.

It’ll have to be OK, because I can’t help it. And I’m concluding that’s mostly a good thing. If no man is an island (thank you for making me really read Donne’s poem) then parents and children shouldn’t be, right?

So, OK, what else do I want?

I think I’ve now done enough thinking and learning that I might have something to say in public. I want to find out. That means finally getting past whatever’s kept me from doing my own best writing. You’re writing columns (a big-time congratulations for an honor very well earned, by the way). It’s time I did, too, at least.

One thing should make that easier. Thankfully, I don’t seem to care quite as much anymore about what people think of me. I have to remind myself of that — it’s true, but I keep forgetting! (Heaven knows there’s enough crud being published out there by people who never seem to worry about that <grin>…) Also, for better or worse, I seem to be trending towards a bit less paying work. I’m still sitting at my desk as much as ever, but the difference seems to be Coursera courses and so forth.

So time does exist for real writing. And I’m fresh out of excuses.

Next, I want to get older gracefully.

I don’t mean I’m “old” already. You know what I say ad nauseam: 58 is the new 58. It ain’t 40. (Or 70.)

Maybe it’s watching Grandpa Bob up close, especially lately. Maybe it’s watching my own Dad the last few years. But I’ve been thinking a lot about aging well.

Of course there’s plenty of luck involved in that. But hopefully I can stay in shape (if my knees don’t give out)… and stay engaged, intellectually and otherwise. There are so many great new ideas out there, and old ones I haven’t come across yet… great new places to visit with Mom… and, for that matter, great new songs, bands, novels, scientific discoveries…

Above all, I’ll have to try not to get too weird, inflexible, and stubborn.

It’s easy for me to see the ways “other” aging people fall victim to their own vanities and sense of denial. But, as a human, it’s hard to see and act on my own. For example, I know perfectly well that the hearing in my left ear is slipping. It’s fine day-to-day, but it’s already a big problem at parties where it’s noisy and you really need “full stereo” to understand conversations. We shall see just how long it takes for me to go investigate a hearing aid. A year? Five? Ten? Every cell in my body resists the idea! (Am I gonna be that different from Bob, who at 92+, and with dementia, still hates the idea of hanging around with what he calls “senior citizens”?)

I will also probably be called upon to make thoughtful judgments about just how far I should ride my bike on these sore knees (when that inner voice is always saying, a couple miles more…) Will I ride the Ramapo Rally 50 mile next week, or just 25? The question answers itself — but that doesn’t mean it’s the right answer!

So… these 1,200 words are definitely not everything I want. (For instance… I need to be better about doing things Mom wants to do. I need to get productive earlier in the morning. If I’m gonna be a halfway skinny vegetarian, it’d be nice to learn how to cook food I actually want to eat (besides blueberry pancakes). And I still dream of someday moving up to Boston long enough to earn a Master’s Degree from Harvard Extension School.)

But it ought to be enough to keep me busy for awhile!


*Following in a long line of self-help clichés tracing back to Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie, who toured the world in the early 1920s teaching people to tell themselves: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” People made plenty of jokes about Coué (a la Stuart Smalley). But ya know what, it’s another of those clichés that only got that way because it captured a bit of important truth. Mr. Smalley is now a United States Senator, after all!

**This week I delegate that task to Frank Bruni.


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