Like birthdays, end-of-year holidays can be a time for taking stock. However externally prompted, these recurring milestones give us opportunities to look back, assess the present, and peer into the future.
In October 2009, writer Judith Warner blogged for the New York Times (link here) about listening to her daughter sing the title song of the musical Fame:
…I heard Julia’s voice, stronger and more confident than mine: “I’m gonna live forever. I’m gonna learn how to fly. (High.)”
And one of those all-too-frequent choke-in-the-throat feelings came over me.
This was her song now. Not mine.
The sense of limitless possibility: hers. Vaulting ambition: hers. Anticipation, excitement, discovery, intensity: all hers.
Later in the piece, she laments, “This is the cruelty of middle age, I find: just when things have gotten good — really, really, consistently good — I have become aware that they will end.”
I hope that, for Warner’s sake, she was writing her blog post at a time when she was briefly caught in a down mood. But even her attempt to locate the silver lining sounded a bit sad:
There are trade-offs: intensity versus contentment, exaltation versus peace. And perhaps the best exchange of all: you trade in an idea of yourself for a reality that, if nothing else, can make you laugh.
Ack. Even the top benefit of her “really, consistently good” life today is the ability to chuckle at her current self. I hope that the reality of her middle years has been better than that.
I’m not quite sure why I’m using Warner’s piece as the prompt for a holiday reflection, but obviously it has stuck with me over the years. Although I won’t claim immunity from all of Warner’s lamentations about getting older, I now feel ready to write a response.
True, I now understand Warner’s acknowledgement of our mortality, which for me is also maddeningly accompanied by a recognition that I am finally becoming the best version of myself. With apologies for invoking a sports metaphor, I get that I am fully into the second half of my game, and this “season” lasts for but one match. (Yeah, maybe I’ll come back in another life, but I won’t bank on that.)
That said, among the genuine blessings of the passing of time have been the gaining of authenticity and self-definition. I have been afforded the extraordinary privilege of being able to make choices — hundreds of millions of people in this world are not so fortunate. I have squandered some of that privilege — stupidly at times — but thankfully a kernel of inner wisdom has helped me to narrow down the limitless possibilities, rather than struggling to keep them open.
As I see it, in making the right choices we find the “(a)nticipation, excitement, discovery, [and] intensity” that Warner has now reserved for her young daughter. When that happens, the would’ve beens and could’ve beens — i.e., the roads not taken — don’t matter as much.
I do know of those youthful feelings that Warner writes about. That sense of the world being your oyster, wrapped in a seemingly boundless optimism of things to come. I remember those days well, and sometimes I get nostalgic for them.
But was it ever actually that good? If I’m being honest with myself, I also must acknowledge the piles of anxiety, insecurity, immaturity, and posturing (a kinder way of saying inauthenticity) that were very much a part of my twentysomething self and, umm, beyond. By no means do I assume that all others within those age ranges are similarly afflicted, but such qualities were very much a part of my life during that long stretch of time.
So today I’ve got less hair, more paunch, and my knees creak, but I have a strong sense of what I’m supposed to be doing and that feels good. I now understand Joseph Campbell’s sage advice, follow your bliss. Campbell (1904-87), whose writings and lectures on mythology, faith traditions, and the world’s societies made him a cherished authority on the human experience, suggested that following our bliss will lead us to the life paths that have been awaiting us. When we reach this point, opportunities and connections seem to materialize.
In a popular PBS series of interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell replied to a Moyers question about whether “hidden hands” guide and facilitate our work once we’ve found our path:
All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time — namely, that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you. . . .
As I suggested above, many people are not afforded this opportunity. If life is largely a struggle to obtain food, clothing, and shelter, then it’s awfully hard to pursue one’s higher level aspirations. (Sidebar holiday message: If you’re fortunate to be able to define yourself and your life, rather than be controlled by difficult circumstances, then please find ways to give back as well.)
But I’m guessing that most folks with the ability to read this have some degree of choice about their lives. Of course, some may be struggling to find their deeper purpose, or to recover from setbacks. For these people, especially, here is what I wish for them at this holiday season: Opportunities to discover and follow their bliss, and the wisdom to do so. When that happens, life can get better, much better.
This post was revised in December 2019.
The original version of this post was cross-posted with my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.