New York Times columnist David Brooks shares “Life Reports” today based on observations that he made of essays by elderly Americans on life’s lessons and what they would do differently if they could live life all over again. I found this fascinating reading, and I was inspired to share it with my readers in summary along with a few of my own comments:
Divide your life into chapters.The unhappiest of my correspondents saw time as an unbroken flow, with themselves as corks bobbing on top of it. The happier ones divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases. They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points. By seeing time as something divisible into chunks, they could more easily stop and self-appraise. They had more control over their fate. [Note from Todd: The memoirs of George W. Bush, “Decision Points,” is a case in point].
Beware rumination. There were many long, detailed essays by people who are experts at self-examination. They could finely calibrate each passing emotion. But these people often did not lead the happiest or most fulfilling lives. It’s not only that they were driven to introspection by bad events. Through self-obsession, they seemed to reinforce the very emotions, thoughts and habits they were trying to escape. [Said another way, we create what we think about.] Many of the most impressive people, on the other hand, were strategic self-deceivers. When something bad was done to them, they forgot it, forgave it or were grateful for it. When it comes to self-narratives, honesty may not be the best policy.
You can’t control other people. David Leshan made an observation that was echoed by many: “It took me twenty years of my fifty-year marriage to discover how unwise it was to attempt to remake my wife. … I learned also that neither could I remake my friends or students.” On the other hand, some of the most inspiring stories were about stepparents who came into families and wisely bided their time, accepting slights and insults until they were gradually accepted by their new children.
Lean toward risk. It’s trite, but apparently true. Many more seniors regret the risks they didn’t take than regret the ones they did.
Measure people by their growth rate, not by their talents. The best essays were by people who made steady progress each decade.
Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them. For a time, our culture celebrated the rebel and the outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold. They were forever in revolt against the world and ended up sourly achieving little. [There is a role for the rebel and the challenger, but those who make the most difference over time are those who embed themselves in institutions. As James Hunter of UVA shows in his works, institutions and those who work within them generally have been the purveyors of cultural and political change.]
People get better at the art of living. By their 60s many contributors found their zone. Metaphysics is dead; very few of the writers hewed to a specific theology or had any definite conception of a divine order, though vague but uplifting spiritual experiences pepper their reflections.
Finally, the essays present disturbing quandaries. For example, we are told to live for others. But one savvy retiree writes, “Don’t stay with people who, over time, grow apart from you. Move on. This means do what you think will make you feel okay — even if that makes others feel temporarily not okay.” [I also have learned this lesson at mid-life that Oprah summarizes this way: Don’t spend one minute of time or one ounce of energy trying to force yourself on others who are not mutually and eagerly welcoming you. To not force yourself on others is an act of respect and love. Forcing others, or attempting to control them, is the ultimate act of selfishness.]
Thanks David Brooks for the wisdom of years.
You can find the article here: