Wisdom at fifty-something

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Charles D. Hayes is a self-taught philosopher and adult educator whose body of work urges us to look beyond the superficial aspects of modern life and create lives of enduring meaning. Among his many writings, my favorite is his 2004 book, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning. Here’s one of the many wonderful snippets from it:

Most of us have spent the first half of our lives denying the inevitability of our own death, but something about turning 50 enables us to penetrate this barricade of self-deception just enough to stay dimly aware that the end of life is forthcoming. For those of us fortunate enough to have lived this long and remain in reasonably good health, I believe this period is the premium apportionment of life. This is a time when we can separate the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of experience.

Lest anyone under 50 take offense at my seeming endorsement of the view that one has to reach the half-century mark to accumulate a reasonable amount of wisdom, be assured that I speak with authority only about myself on this matter! That said, I think it’s fair to suggest that many of us squander big chunks of our earlier years attending to less meaningful endeavors. The question becomes whether we will “wise up” in time to live life to the fullest and contribute something meaningful to this world.

If we pass on this opportunity, then we may end up like the protagonist in Leo Tolstoy’s masterful 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilylich is a successful lawyer, public servant, and family man who, when confronted with his mortality by a fatal illness, finds himself tormented by the question of whether he has lived a meaningful life. The final scenes of the book are memorable and unsettling.

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We can create meaningful lives in many ways. It may be through relationships such as parenting, caregiving, friendships, and partnerships. It can be through voluntary, community, or avocational activities.

To the extent we create this meaning through our work, we must strive mightily to resist the superficial trappings and excesses of careers and occupational cultures. I see these dynamics playing out all the time in higher education, and I have not been fully immune from them. In fact, as I read how Ivan Ilyich — whose professional resume would document a successful career in law and public service — anguished over the life he had chosen to live, I silently wondered if I might feel the same way when my time comes.

Yup, this is pretty maudlin stuff, isn’t it? But I think it’s the lesson that writers like Hayes and Tolstoy are trying to teach us. We can pay attention now, or ignore it and possibly live to regret it later. And the earlier we understand this simple truth, the better, yes?

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Go here for Hayes’s Self-University blog.

Go here for Hayes’s September University blog.

Go here for more about Hayes’s published books and essays.

Here is a free version of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Maude translation). Inexpensive print and e-book editions of that popular translation and a more recent (and well-received) translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky are available at bookstores.

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Addendum: Soon after posting this piece, I found this excellent essay by Fred Branfman, posted to AlterNet: “Embracing Life-Affirming Death Awareness: How to Transform Yourself and Possibly Save Human Civilization.” If this general topic interests you, it’s worth a serious read.

One response

  1. Well said, David. Meaning – no one can understand the ripples your life sends out with each action or inaction. May our ripples create tidal waves to leave a better world in its wake.

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