Over time, I’ve redefined the mark at which I transitioned from a young, or middle-aged, guy to an older man in life’s later seasons.
Marking my 30th birthday was the first occasion. Oh, how little did I know! The thirties are such a youthful time of learning and growing. I wasn’t old at all, and just thought I knew a lot.
Surely at 40 you pass the great divide, I reasoned, but a guy will still do some pretty dumb things in his forties.
It was with fair certainty, though, that 49 was the very last birthday where I could consider myself anything but an older guy. Middle age? Maybe. If I live to be 100, that is. We continually live in a world of self-denial, don’t we?
We spend so much time learning in those first 40 or 50 years. It’s by this time that we’ve pretty much become the sum of who we are.
Or have we?
What I’m learning through most of my fifties is just exactly how much I have to unlearn. And I believe this is a natural part of life.
It stands to reason that some of the seemingly most important things we’ve learned along the way (or things we’ve been taught, or exposed to, that is) may not have been true or accurate.
Like it or not, what we believe – and, moreover, how we believe – is shaped much by random circumstance. Where we’re born. Where our parents took us to church. Those who were formative in our education. Was each and every one of them right in the life issues they exemplified to us? Chances are good a few were wrong, and this is why it’s always been a part of my message as a communicator that we all be seekers, pursing information and truth so that we are anchored in such a way as not to be swayed by the next snake oil salesman on the corner.
Yes, now a 55-year-old man, I still have a lot to unlearn.
Here’s a short list of things I once believed that I no longer believe:
• I’m responsible for the happiness to those close to me. False. I can protect them, provide for them, mentor them, and love them to the core of my soul. But each of us is responsible for our own happiness. I cannot make you happy. That’s a hard truth. A truth, nonetheless.
• That I am a bad person when I sever a relationship. No one enjoys ending a relationship, but there is a season for everything – a time to prune, even. Maybe it will get better one day – I doubt it, but the world is increasingly toxic in how many people act toward one another. Second, third chances, I’m all for these. But if you’re frequently exposed to people with a critical nature who belittle you and give less than full respect to your feelings and circumstances, a separation may be the best thing you ever did. I’ve severed several relationships in recent years. I miss the familiarity, but I don’t miss the meanness.
• That my life is pretty much on a straight, forward trajectory. Also, not true. Especially, through the decade of the forties, there were many times I took one step forward and two steps back, not to mention several meandering detours where I got totally lost.
• That it’s so important to see things in black and white. One of the big surprises in life is that I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more comfortable in the gray and outside the margins. There are some things we are just destined not to know this side of eternity.
• That the sum of my actions and the things I do represent who I am. Partially true, but sometimes I do stupid things, and things that are wrong when my heart knew better all along. Mistakes are just that – mistakes. What matters is the heart.
• That if you step into an environment or a situation where you can make a difference for the better that it is your responsibility to bring that change about. I care about a lot of things. My personality is to be fully invested in most things. I instinctively care about many things. But it is not my job to bring about change everywhere that I think change might be needed. There are so many places in life where things were just fine before you came along, and they’ll be just fine after you’re long gone. Those are the places where we find the joy of serving, and there is great joy in being a helper.
• That downtime is wasted time. The older I become, the more I value quiet time, just sitting still and pondering. I’m not great at this, but I’m working on it, and surely recognize the value.
• That speaking out against something you feel strongly about makes a big difference. The older I’ve grown, the more I’ve come to believe that just talking about how passionate we are about something without evidence of our actually doing something about it is nothing more than an empty conviction. Talk is cheap. Social media banter proves it every day.
• That in life’s big decisions I needed divine confirmation to proceed. To the contrary. In some times of uncertainty, I’ve learned to tell God I’m going to walk through a door and if I’m wrong, he needs to close it fast.
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)