Measuring Life

How are you doing as a player in the game of life? Is it measuring up to your expectations? Henry Miller once said “If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical … you’ve got it half licked.” Bertrand Russell saw a fulfilling life as the dissolution of ego. Andre Gide, a prolific and perceptive author, took the longer view – seeing one’s mortality as the motivational catalyst for doing good things.

The perplexity of life often lies in figuring out how to fill the void between who we think we are and who others tell us we are. I find one of the more comforting things about growing older gracefully is an increasing ability to not take things too seriously. We are, for example, expected to be forgetful. This generally makes younger people feel we aren’t listening to them when, in most cases, we’re just trying to remember what we should be telling them, or perhaps how.

Aging is a time for both reflection and irreverence. If we continue to be fascinated by and knowingly absorb the wonderment of the world, we eventually discover the process of aging doesn’t necessarily mean becoming antiquated. Maybe the most difficult thing for younger minds to embrace is the notion of accepting others for who they are while refraining from any serious effort to make the world fit their liking. I suggest this attitude is one of the more important measures of a life well lived. It comes from surviving encounters with failure and learning (without regrets) what we should have done if only we could do it over again. As Winston Churchill discovered from his tumultuous ups and downs: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Doing things that continue to nourish both the soul and the intellect help make aging more enjoyable. I often hear from colleagues on the cusp of retirement say they’re looking forward to doing nothing. At least that’s the answer they give me when I ask. The concept of retiring is somewhat inconceivable to me. An ending to your formal calling is an opportunity to rewire and re-purpose for what is likely the final third of living, assuming you’ve discovered how to extend your longevity.

My work is my life. I can’t think of one without the other. In so many ways, it never coincided with the accepted connotations of effort or tedium. Aligning one’s work with the self generates consonance and from that comes clarity. An interest in doing purposeful things that provide worth to others is a portal for rejuvenation. That is an antidote to boredom. Each new day becomes a platform to begin anew and offers the potential for an unanticipated adventure, a different challenge or a radical thought worthy of exploration.

Science tells us that, as we age, we acquire a different sense of meaning, which in simple terms is to live a life of consequence that reflects what we hold dear. We identify new goals, some perhaps even bold and audacious. This makes us more selective in our choices and may prompt us to edit or prune current relationships. We are more willing to omit needless people who draw us into their web of irritability, frustrations and resentments. We should no longer give voice to those who are not entitled to it.

In time, there is a recognition of the reality that we, not them, are the CEOs of our lives. So we embrace the chance to be with those who give us a deeper appreciation of our existence, the ones who encourage us in the pursuit of our higher purpose. The only reason you should ever be with the person you’re with is because you like being around them. Without mutual respect and admiration, everything that previously seemed consequential unravels with time. Friendship is an emotional process; compatibility is a logical and self-edifying process – an alignment of values and lifestyles.

Aging fosters more realistic expectations. We discover no one lives happily ever after, good guys don’t always win, bad stuff happens (more on that in my next post) and the meek shall never inherit the earth. We acknowledge our faults and then change our behaviours in different, sometimes major, ways. No matter how transparent, disciplined or committed we think we are, our communication with significant others breaks down from time to time. Conflicts around certain fundamental choices are ultimately unavoidable. Feelings get hurt. And so we learn the essence of great relationships is the ability to communicate openly, frequently and honestly, especially about what annoys, disappoints or angers us.

The measure of life is directly proportionate to the quality of those relationships. Attempting to control others is the antithesis of healthy, mutually replenishing connections. Disagreements are normal and natural; so too is the related importance of arguing within the bounds of mutual respect, admiration and civility. Fights can be uncomfortable but they serve a purpose: they put the ugly, often unspoken, things directly on the table where they can be dealt with, one way or the other, in an adult-to-adult conversation.

Pick your battles wisely – some things matter but not every one does. Our ego is our most precious asset, which is why we go to extremes at times to protect it. There is no victory in shoving our sense of what should be up someone else’s nose. Know when to fight, when to walk and when to forgive. If you think you’re right and have spoken your mind to that effect, you’ve said enough. So shut up – that too is an essential life skill. When you do, the other may eventually conclude you were right, or at least partially so. Therein lies a victory. It’s not just that we need difficult conversations, in significant ways those conversations are the relationship. When we handle them well, the connection is made resilient.

A measure of maturity, a hallmark of character, lies in knowing when and how to surrender. Not everything is worth the angst of forced victories. A friend of mine, long gone, taught me the value of distinguishing between “pinches” (small annoyances) and “crunches” (major irritations). If you don’t deal frankly and expeditiously with the former, the latter become your default mode. We can choose to fight evil or injustice but railing against stupidity is a complete waste of time. I long ago accepted the notion that humans are the only creatures on the planet who talk themselves into trouble when permitted to do so. That discovery has paid enormous dividends in countless negotiations over the years.

The measure of a life well lived is realizing that our ego often gets in the way of our objectives, that we are not as clever, skilled or self-assured as we may imagine (or hope), that incremental progress is sustainable but quantum leaps are destined to fail, that understanding is more important than compromise, that trying to win every competition is an erosion of what’s important in the relationships we value.

Whatever adversity we may face, we all seek the freedom to be authors of our own story. We cannot control life’s uncertain and paradoxical circumstances but we can control what we do with them. The end goal must be seeing ourselves accomplishing something remarkable, however that is defined or determined, and doing so with courage, decency and integrity. For me, that fundamental purpose is fulfilled by assisting others in the liberation of their full potential.

As our time narrows, the opportunity to shape our preferred stories does as well. It is (yet again) a matter of continuous choices and beneficial tradeoffs. Which ones are you willing to make? Your unique story is the sum and substance of your life. At the end of that game, scorecards don’t really count for much. Since there is no “final exam,” we can’t actually fail. We can only learn how to get better.