Sunday, September 19, 2010

Just a Number

This time next week, I’ll officially be 60. Officially, I say, because, I’ve mentally been 60 the whole year I’ve chronologically been 59. No use procrastinating.

Turning 60 is no big deal. “It’s just a number,” they say. But if it’s just a number, why do most of the new books on my bookshelf deal with living the “second half of life.” (There’s a euphemism for you.)

And in case the number didn’t get my attention, over the last few months I’ve seen two contemporaries of mine leave the planet. First, a college mate died of a brain tumor, and then, a business associate of my vintage died from complications on what was supposed to be minor surgery. (I don’t think there’s any such thing as minor surgery for the patient, just for the surgeon.)

This phase of life is different and I’m reading to find a roadmap. I don’t have the roadmap but I do see some sign posts.

First, I know that sometime this decade I’ll hang up my day-job spurs. I haven’t figured out if that means I’ll forever end working. There’s something in me that admires the stories of the 90-something attorney or business owner who still goes to work every day. On the other-hand, there’s something in me that tells me that going to work every day is not the purpose of life and these guys just don’t have a clue.

Until recently I’ve been driven in my work. I had a boss tell me when I was 40 that he just didn’t know why I was so driven. I don’t know either. For most of my working life, though, I’ve had clear targets for achievement and contribution. It was important, for some reason, to set and reach these external goals. Through focus, tenacity and luck I did what I set out to do. The question is “so what?” And, “now what?”

Questions like these are sign posts for this stage of life. From reading, I know that the quest is no longer about achievement but about meaning. It’s a nice problem to have, all things being considered.

I recently, read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, and Martha Beck’s Steering by Starlight. As is my habit, I had a couple of books going simultaneously. This can sometimes get stuff from one book scrambled into the other. Most of the time, this synergy works for me. It can be problematic, though, as when I was simultaneously reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Jack Benny. Turns out Lincoln didn’t really spend that much time in Waukegan.

One road marker to meaning is Tolle’s observation that we are not our thoughts or our feelings. We don’t think, our mind thinks us -- similar to the way our lungs breathe us without conscious effort. If we can observe ourselves thinking and feeling, who is it that is doing the observing? Tolle’s contention that is we are the observer.

Both Tolle and Beck then talk about discovering purpose and meaning in life by getting quiet and listening to this inner voice – remembering who you are. Both remind us to be present in the moment. The past is over and the future unknowable. The present moment is the only true reality. I write this because I need this reminder.

Up to now, I’ve thought a lot and thought that thinking is who I am. But, with Tolle’s insight, I can see I’m missing the point. Through thinking, planning and doing, I’m forgetting to be a human being (versus a human doing). Heavy. (As we used to say in the late ‘60s of prior century.)

So what does it all mean as I begin my 7th (yikes!) decade on the planet? I think it means that I’m on a different road, now. I’m off the traffic–clogged fast lane of the super highway and on the slow, scenic, forgotten country road. It’s being present and remembering who you were (and are) before you joined the rush hour commute. That’s the metaphor for this phase of life.