This was a trying time for Margaret: nasty divorce, dating after a 23-year hiatus, near-death brain aneurism, date rape, the death of dear friends, and the declining health of her mom. But this post is not a book review. Instead, I feel like expressing my own comments on aging, roads not taken, acceptance and happiness.
It was not just Margaret’s book that got me thinking, but also our circumstances. She and I attended the same advanced placement high school classes in Elmhurst, Illinois. She turned down Stanford for the six-year college/medical school program at Northwestern. I turned down Northwestern for Stanford. She lived in Chicago condos. I used to wonder how I’d have liked the Chicago lifestyle. Margaret had, and probably still has, the good looks of Charlize Theron – Ashley Judd. Brains and beauty. I used to look like Brad Pitt. (Well, would you believe . . . Marty Feldman?)
A thought that crossed Margaret’s mind when she contemplated her own death from the aneurism was the “lack of lasting impact . . . a person such as me makes during life,” (p. 74) as if raising two daughters and keeping people alive in trauma centers were not enough. Those of us in high school a. p. classes were children with high expectations for ourselves. Those expectations drove us to set and achieve goals. Such potential also creates the risk that we may deem ourselves failures for not setting and achieving higher goals. If Jesus Christ, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Franklin Roosevelt are the role models, then we are doomed to feeling like losers.
Possessing great potential might have prompted Margaret’s following words, which saddened, angered and motivated me to write this post. While watching marathon runners pass their homes, she and her neighbors talked about their bad knees, etc. She started “thinking about how life chips away at our potential, athletic as well as otherwise, and defines the roads not taken.” (p. 36)
On one level, we all have such thoughts as we age. It’s too late for me to try out for the Chicago Cubs. I can’t sprint 800 meters without disabling pain for at least a week. What if I’d avoided my first marriage?
Here’s the thing. Even stem cells must differentiate; one cannot become a heart valve AND an optic nerve. A tree cut to frame a house will not support a Marbled Murrelet. Childhood potential must grow from myriad choices and circumstances into something. A life spent building a business is a life not spent as a professional golfer. Potential will be exploited in some manner, thereby becoming unavailable for exploitation in another realm. Regardless of the road travelled, we are in this spot at this moment in time. Accepting and working with our realities, I believe, is the key.
“Acceptance” can get a bad reputation when used as a waiver or release from diligence. Acceptance, as I use it, is not a philosophy to support slackers. One must continue to set and achieve self-directed goals. The focus must be forward-looking and positive: the half-full part of the glass. I accept the fact that I cannot run a marathon. The reality is that I do not resemble Brad Pitt in the slightest. But, I feel like I possess skills, abilities, and judgment that I could never have imagined 36 years ago. Some potential is gone, but new potential exists.
So, when my former classmate refers to life as chipping away at our potential, I acknowledge her declaration as an expression of her entirely appropriate depression, but I reject it as a statement of true fact. Everyone reading this post has enormous potential that cannot be exhausted in one lifetime, I’d argue.
As for happiness, we all would benefit from consistently taking stock of the good things in life. Some days I walk around Portland with a broad inner smile of appreciation for all that is around me: sights, smells, people and their works -- the wonderful things that others are doing that I cannot and need not do. (Of course, other days I curse the clouds and read a book.) I marvel at the things I’ve witnessed in my life, from new technology to centuries-old temples. As days become fewer in number after our mid lives, we must strive to make them better in quality. For me, the quickest fix is to avoid that which makes me unhappy (e.g., news of global environmental Armageddon) and focus on what pleases me.
Nevertheless, at times one cannot simply change channels because shit happens in our own lives. It certainly happened to Margaret Overton. As my sister urges, seize a good hour if you cannot carpe a full diem. Zoom to focus on that pleasant spot of beauty or gratitude whenever there's a break in the shit storm.
This morning as we parted for our jobs, I hugged my wife and told her I loved her. Honestly, I’d feel greedy to want much more.