Your first life is as a child, as you encounter the world. My grandson asking the big questions at 6: “How did the galaxies start? What was there before the tiny lump of all the matter in the universe? Why did God explode it?”
Your second life is governed by hormones: “Will I be pretty?” “Will I be attractive?” “Can I find a mate?” “Will we have kids?” “Can we have kids?”
Your third life is financial – edging up on the second life: “Can I afford to have kids?” “Can I send them to college?” “Can I pay off my mortgage?”
And your fourth life is after the first three lives lose their ability to engage you. Your mortgage is paid off. Your kids have their own lives and check in with you now and then. Now what?
For a decade or so, everything is fine. You take courses at the local university. You learn to paint or play the piano. You travel. You design quilts or take up pottery. Maybe you start a blog about your travel, or your craft work. You sign up for local government committees.
And then, you realize that your relevance is ebbing. Younger people no longer seek your advice. You run out of things to say on your blog. You read about the places you visited, and the current travel advice has nothing in common with your decade-old experience.
And then, things start to fall apart. Your fingers no longer quite do as you command as you practice your piano or your typing. The words don’t spring to mind as you write your blog or your letter to the editor.
And then, you fall. You break. You are slow to heal.
And then, you are suddenly old.
It’s not the “Golden Years” seen in the advertisements in the AARP magazine. It’s a life of constriction, where you move a bit less freely, food is a bit less flavorful, conversation is a bit harder to follow, reading or watching television is a bit harder to focus on, every day. Until one day you realize that the world is moving past you, that the world doesn’t even see you.
And now what? Your friends (those who have survived) and children (if you are lucky enough to have some who are still around) remind you of all the happy times you have had, all of the things you have accomplished. But your life always has been focused on the future. Now that future looks uncertain, even painful. Will you need care? Will you lose your freedom to move without assistance? What do you have left to give to the world?
You have already lived four lives. What will the fifth life be? In some cultures, the old are seen as repositories of wisdom. In American culture, always touting youth and new frontiers, it is all too easy for those facing the fifth life to feel pushed to the side, superfluous.
So this is my challenge for the new year – to list the gifts I have, and consider how to make them useful to my wider world. To keep my future in mind, both its opportunities and its hazards, and to maximize the former while minimizing the latter. Explore new paths, but wear sensible shoes, and be careful not to fall.