I am in my mid 50s. A fuller figured legally blind old bachelor with a penchant for single malt whiskey, new spuds and serious economic literature. Hardly a winner by normal standards. Yet I am enjoying my life at this stage. More than when I was young, when occasional depression and youthful insecurities were a nemesis.
A key realisation with age is the transitory nature of our existence. Everything changes yet we all arrive at the same final destination. Humans often crave stability but that is not the nature of our reality. This may sound morbid yet it can be liberating.
I am not a religious man, despite a Catholic upbringing. I can’t remember worrying about much at all before I was born so I am unlikely to worry after I depart.
I felt uncomfortable in my own skin as a young man. I was a wanderer in my twenties. I couldn’t settle. I worked in the bush in Australia training officer cadets from Duntroon , I worked in the mines in Jabiru, I worked on kibbutz in Israel. I was a restless soul. I didn’t fit. I found the concepts of “settling down” and ” getting ahead” hugely unappetising. I still do.
I have come to appreciate that money can provide options – particularly liberation from the drudgery and tyranny of “having to work. ” Yet I still choose to work.
Accumulating stuff and being concerned about being a ” winner” has never appealed. I was reminded of this tonight as I watched the news. An international top ranked tri athlete was lamenting that we are not teaching our kids to be winners. That being a winner w ill allow them to own a bigger house and drive a better car. What he fails to realise is that real life is not as linear and simplistic as crossing the line first in a multi sport race.
A genetic tendency towards blindness has been a huge factor in shaping my attitude and approach to life. Yet strangely I am very grateful for that, without being a complete dumbass Pollyanna. I would much prefer to have 20/20 vision and to look like George Clooney. I am coping with living half my dream.
I believe adversity shapes character. The obstacle is the way. To assume you will progress in a linear upward fashion through life without encountering sadness, loss or unfairness is totally unrealistic. Yet this is the message we often impart to our young. It doesn’t make sense, nor does it create resilience.
At this age I realise some stark, yet liberating truths of human existence. Those who appear the most sorted are often the least sorted. No one is totally sorted.
In an age where image is everything, the reality behind the images can actually be very sad. The recognition that no one is ever totally sorted is hugely liberating. Life is a long journey. There are phases when we all feel we are on top of it. In the right relationship, or job, or place. But this must always be transitory because that is the reality of existence.
The myth of the perfect family, the perfect marriage, the perfect job is hugely destructive. It invites discontent and dissatisfaction. It suggests someone else is living a perfect life. I have never met such an omnipotent being.
This explains our sad fascination in the tragic downfall of celebrities. Surely their lives must be so much better due to fame and fortune. It is a strange relief when this illusion is viciously exposed. Think George Micheal, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and countless others. The Germans have a word for such morbid fascination in the downfall of others. It is schadenfreude.
With age should come resilience, greater understanding and acceptance of human reality. The alternative is bitterness or worse. Sadly, too many of our young folk succumb to self destruction before they can appreciate this. That the obstacles we encounter along the way, and how we respond, is what shapes our character and our lives. That adversity is a fundamental element of human existence. Yet it can also allow us to transcend the hum drum of daily existence. It can inspire.
We are bombarded with images that suggest we are failures because our lives are less than perfect, compared to others. This is the very dark side of interconnected modernity.
The onus is on educators and parents and elders to destroy this pretence. To be honest about human reality. Subtle guidance is crucial. But most important is allowing our young people to appreciate that no one is totally sorted. No one is living a perfect life, despite constant media images to the contrary. Facebook is often sad window dressing to the world. I post very little, to the relief of my two friends, who I have never actually met.
The true realisation that life is transitory can invite extreme responses. One response is to adopt a cynical hedonistic approach to living. Live for the moment. Nothing really matters except material and physical pleasures. Yet this is a recipe for eventual boredom and disillusionment. I know. I have tried it.
For those of us without the belief in a heavenly afterlife, a more rewarding approach is to appreciate the finiteness and beauty of our existence. To recognise the transitory impermanence of life. That everything changes. To recognise that absolutely no one is totally sorted despite appearances. We need to teach our young people to appreciate what they can and can’t control. The main thing they can control is their own responses and attitudes. It is not about relentless positivity. Just a greater appreciation of human reality.
But the big thing is making the most of our positive potential in how we approach our fleeting existence. Going for it, trying new things, and embracing successes and failures as part of truly living. Neither ultimately matters. Laughing more, particularly at ourselves. Enjoying our relationships with other people, embracing learning, not being half arsed in whatever we try. Appreciating new spuds.
We all need to answer the crucial question of “what is a good life?” Yet it is a question seldom asked in mainstream education. The answers are out there. We just need to stop deluding ourselves that media are providing the right answers.
Peter Lyons teaches At Saint Peter’s College in Epsom and has written several Economics texts.