On turning sixty

A reflection by Steve Satullo on his 60th birthday, 29 May 2007

Almost all my friends are turning 60 this year, the boomiest of boomers, ready to go off — tick, tick, tick.  60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 years in a life.  Naturally we are preoccupied with the things that last and the things that fade away.  In all probability three-quarters of our lives have passed, though by ill chance for any it might be 90 or even 99 percent gone.  What will we make of the rest?

From the platform of my senior status, I make bold to sermonize, and the theme of my homily is:  What gets better as one gets older, what gets worse, what stays the same?  After 60 years of living, it would be a shame if I hadn’t learned enough to say something useful to the world.

By your latter years, you have — God willing — the life you have chosen, and then you get to live with your choices, as others are foreclosed.  As you go through life, you make your choices one by one and thereby narrow the choices you must face in the future.  The hard work of constructing a self is mostly done, what remains is to express that self in the best manner open to you.  If you’re lucky or determined, first you come to know thyself, and then you may come to be thyself.

It helps to be old, and to have your choices narrowed by the previous choices you have made; no longer must you contend with the oppressive multiplicity of the world and the multitude of choices open to you.  It helps to be old enough to have no delusions of saving the world, and modest enough to take salvation, of one’s self and others, as the only worthy goal.  Though I have peculiar notion of salvation: it has nothing to do with “eternal life” but only with the sacrament of the present moment, by which eternity is seen in a grain of sand.

As for me, I don’t pretend to do much, but hope to do enough in the long run.  Grandiose ambition is certainly a thing of the past; humble labor is all that remains.  The present has to become more precious as you have more past than future.

As a young man I studied philosophy, but was ontogenetically incapable of practicing it, living in a world of meat and heat.  But as an older person, hobbled and humbled, slowed but not stopped, I am more able to live philosophically, in a world of air and light.  So at length I begin to think of myself as a “philosopher” — a lover of wisdom, not a possessor of it.  The surest sign that one is not wise is the professing of wisdom.  Wisdom can only be confessed.  It can never be asserted but only affirmed; not proclaimed but simply lived.

So let me affirm two assertions by my main men, best of buddies for most of my life.  From Henry David Thoreau:  “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.  It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”  

And from the old Tom cat (that’s T.S. Eliot to you):  “Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men . . . The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” 

The one constant in life is — or ought to be — doubt.  The best gift of life is faith.  One does not deny, but requires, the other.  And humility is the crucible that fuses them, transforms the elements and makes a new thing, a re-formed compound.  Either faith or doubt alone is pernicious, as poisonous as sodium or chlorine, but combined molecularly they yield the salt of the earth, together they save living things and give life savor.

When you are young, every day you go forth to meet your life, the great unknown.  When you are old, every day you go forth to meet your death, the great unknown.  Along the way, you need to cultivate a proclivity for humility and an attitude of gratitude — serenity and maturity are ends worth pursuing.  Learn to make decisions, learn to make more good choices than bad, and learn to forgive yourself for the bad choices you make.  Learn to learn early and that experience is best teacher, even when its lessons are hard.  The two most important things to learn as you go are to make allowances and to make amends.  Give yourself and others the benefit of doubt; forgive and seek forgiveness.

Enough with the sermon, let’s get down to specifics, deal with present cases.  At this point there’s a natural tendency to see one’s life in quarters, so I’ve been contemplating memory snapshots of myself at 20 and 40, while I adjust to 60, but do not dare speculate on 80.  At 20, one has to evaluate everything.  At 40, one is likely to be accumulating valuables and valuable experience.  At 60, one tends to discover that everything has a value of its own.  

When I was 20 it was the “Summer of Love.”  I can’t really say how much I turned on or tuned in, but I had definitely dropped out, of college and all the rest.  I knew what I was against — racial discrimination, the Vietnam War and all that, just for starters — but did not yet know what I was for.  I felt alienated from everything I knew, had nothing but choices in front of me, all of them bad.  Bit by bit I made my own choices, selected my own alternatives, and constructed something upon which to rejoice, some place to stand in the world, with whatever small leverage it offered.  I chose a place to live, people to live with, and ideas to live for.  I listened for a calling and looked for a job, with limited success at both.  When I was 20 I was a mess, but year by year I became less of a mess.  I learned to tidy my psyche a bit, but more to bless the mess.  Nonetheless it was slow progress and agonizing process.

At 40 I was at the top of my wheel, however small its circumference — success seemed to be at my own dispensation.  I was coming to the end of my bookstore’s period of rapid growth, beginning an era of consolidation, with decline still years away.  I had a difficult but rewarding “Big Love” home life, with my son and my daughter, both around two years old, and their respective, doting mothers.  And it was the climactic year of my late-blooming athletic career, the minor peaks of my glory and folly.  It was my Lou Boudreau-Bill Veeck year as player-manager-sponsor of a softball team in the most competitive league in the region, and before I crashed and burned, I had my moments.  Such as the time I led Either/Or Bookstore to our first ever victory over Lee Men’s Club, by hitting a game-tying triple in the final frame, and a game-winning home run in the extra inning.  Then in a recreational basketball league, Either/Or made it to the playoff finals, where my assignment was to cover the league’s leading scorer, a lad barely half my age, and though we lost the championship (hey, I’m from Cleveland, I expect disappointment), I won my mano a mano personal contest by outscoring the stud, 10 points to 9.

At 60, both business and athletic success are far behind me, pleasant but distant memories, small victories without residue.  I weathered the end of both with some pain, but ultimately enhanced understanding.  In the end I regret nothing, though I would surely regret not having the experiences I have had.  I’ll tell you, not only is success behind me, but the very idea of success is behind me.  All I want is to be and to do; all other ambition is moot to me. 

Ideally, we should mature like generations of electronic equipment, with each cycle getting simpler in use and more complex in design, less expensive and more functional.  Until we go the way of the 8-track tape in an iPod world.  Make way, make way, but only after you have found a way, a way through, a way to disappear and remain, a way above and beyond.

So that’s how one ought to progress through life, how it gets better as one gets older.  I’m not going to say much about how it gets worse, because really, who wants to hear an old person complain about the indignities of encroaching decrepitude?  But there’s at least one way in which I’ve never changed, one lesson I’ve never learned.

In my younger days, I would try to deflect the accusation of procrastination.  “No, no, I’m not procrastinating, I’m doing x or y or z.  But these days, hell yes, come to Jesus, I confess that I am an habitual procrastinator, a craven avoider, an unconscionable delayer.  This testimony is about coming to terms with one’s disability or besetting flaw, learning to love the sinner if not the sin, discovering how to make amends.

Maybe I should have come clean years ago.  It was already pretty obvious when it took me seven years to get through college, dropping out a couple of times and never handing a paper in on time, and eventually not handing some in at all.  But the day the diploma arrived in the mail (no graduation ceremony for me!), I vowed I would never set foot in a classroom again, and that particular problem with papers vanished.

But the perverted perfectionism behind it would pop up in other parts of my life down through the years.  And would assure that I never got or kept a job that I couldn’t do at my own obstinate though not always slothful pace, at times of my own choosing.  And worse yet, my besetting flaw helped doomed me to an impractical and ineffectual existence, more involved with how I would want things to be than the hard facts of how things are.  Delay eventually becomes default.

Life is just too damned pleasant to postpone enjoyment, but just too damned short to put things off indefinitely, to procrastinate forever.  I do, however, prefer not to push, rather to be pulled along by events as they come.  I find it easier (and perhaps wiser) to rationalize whatever happens as being for the best, rather than to plan in advance and then execute the plan

Nonetheless I have to admit that I am running out of time.  The grains of sand vortex to oblivion.  I think not just of my 60th birthday, but of today and tomorrow passing to dust while my to-do list gets longer and longer.  And yet I remain an obtuse optimist about time, always late, ever procrastinating, in fond hope that there will be enough time to do what I have to do, whenever I feel like doing it.  The bad part is all I have not done of what I’ve imagined.  The good part is I ain’t done yet.

My mother used to tell me I would be late to my own funeral, but that never struck me as a bad thing — didn’t then, doesn’t now.  The truth is, I would like some more time — just a little extension you understand, to get my work in and earn my credit — but I wouldn’t want a chance to do my life again, take the course over — I don’t believe my luck could have been better than it was this time through.

Though not a grinder, I am inherently a worker.  Resistances build up and I don’t always have the energy to overcome them, but my natural inclination is to get things done, without regimentation of any kind.  Equally, my natural inclination is to look for the easy way out.  Still — I am able, given the time, to get work accomplished without busting my hump.

Even with the perpetual shortfalls, my life seems to proceed methodically.  There is a method to my madness, a rationale to my fecklessness, a reasonable tempo to my procrastination.  Timing is all, and maybe my timing is not so bad after all.  I’m actually getting organized, my work and my space, and mainly my head.  I have doubts and uncertainty, but I am focused.  I know what I have to do, and I do it.  I nag at myself about this and that, but I really feel my life and work coming together (with the proviso that it could all fall apart in instant — fate forfend.)  More and more, energy exceeds entropy, and work gets done.

Viewed from the perspective of American life around the turn of the millennium, my wants are few and my consumption limited.  And yet through any other lens, I lead a life of obscene privilege, a pasha well provided by the labor of others, near and distant.  Still, I feel I have work to do, a gift to offer, thanks to be made in compensation for my existence.  As the Buddha instructs us:  “Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”

I am rich in family and friends, and amply supplied with the amenities of life.  I want for nothing, and yet there is something I want: some sense of purpose, some use for my talents, some repayment for the gifts I’ve been given, some proper evaluation of my worth.  The only legitimate response to unmerited grace is unstinting gratitude.

I worry that I am just too full of myself, that my writing betrays an appalling narcissism.  But as much as my pages are full of myself, they also represent an emptying of self, a willingness to dissect myself like a laboratory specimen.  What I seek is humility without humiliation, self-examination without pride.  The trick is to balance self-assertion with self-abnegation.  I don’t think that I am important in any particular way, but I do want to believe I have it in my power to make significant points through the example of my own life.

“I am who I am” is both a god-like assertion and a humble admission of frailty, an affirmation of being and a confession of singularity, for better and for worse.  Outside of minimal concerns of money and time, I don’t worry or decry my failings, don’t disparage my feelings either.  Just let me be me, and enjoy my life, in spite of the perpetual shortfall, the gap between aspiration and achievement.  Self-delusion is a salve for that severing, but sometimes the effect wears off.  Pain and panic ensue.  But hey, even though I am in the autumn of my life, on my birthday it’s springtime all around me.  If you can’t be happy now, you never will be.  Forget the future and the past, and the present is beautiful.  Live life while the living is good.

So savor these fine May days, when the woods by my favorite spot vibrate with fresh green, and in the meadow beyond a profusion of dandelions such as I have never seen rolls across the fields, bringing the light of the sun down to earth in a million yellow dabs, each up close a sunburst all its own.  And then a week later, they are full moons of white constellating the earth, a milky way across the fields.  Up close now they are solar systems in miniature, geodesic spheres of filament, ready to disperse into the infinity of space in a day or an hour.  I stride like Atlas through the meadow, casting the infinitesimal stars to the wind.

Time is relative, space is relative, both past and future are relative.  This moment, this place, this here and now is absolute.  I celebrate a phenomenological apperception of the world.  To posit an objective reality, beyond the mass of subjectivity, is to posit God.  I’m here to see it and say it, offer eyewitness testimony to divinity, the sacred dimension of life.  I hope to deploy a certain eloquence, a simple elegance of expression and cogency of statement, on a range of topics of common and uncommon interest.  I hope to raise my voice in the choir of glory.

At 60, it’s fair to say, I have a new lease on life — though I can’t know whether it’s long-term or short-term.  I persist in the feeling that everything up till now has been practice, now I begin to live for keeps.  I have found identity and purpose in becoming an evangelist for the gospel of love.  I have lived, loved, and learned.  I’m a fallen man, doubtful no doubt, but I arise anew each day — as many as may be allotted to me.  As the man says, I will persist in my folly till it becomes wisdom. (Was that Willie Blake or Hank Thoreau?  All those country singers and country songs sound alike, don’t they?)

I am writing some time after my nominal birth date, which is entirely characteristic, since I am as likely to pre-date completion of a project as I am to post-date a check.  Days after my birthday, I went to my second college graduation ceremony ever, my son’s following my brother’s, where I could again bask in the unearned glow of reflected academic glory.  I felt the sting of comparison with all the hopeful and accomplished scholars, but was moved to compose my own commencement address:
As I launch the endeavor of my latter days, I embark on the mission with commitment.  I go forth to answer my vocation and address the world, act my role on the public stage without imposture.  I intend to profess a calling and practice a craft, having found a line of work, a career, a duty and a service to perform.  In the time I am spared, I shall retain the zeal of the amateur, while striving for the discipline of a professional.  My main goal is to heed the Word.  And then to worship through expression of my ultimate concerns, remaining reverently aware and alert.  In the end I wish to lose myself in work, and thereby find myself.  Immersed and intent, engrossed and absorbed, I will give free play to my curiosity and enthusiasm.

So what if I’m a senior citizen rather than a graduating senior, the song remains the same.