• The Professor

When Will You Live Your Dreams?

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”

~ Zig Ziglar

Which will you choose today, day one or one day? Will today be the day you really begin to live, or will you put it off again? I lived much of the first half of my life as an endless series of saying “one day.” One day I will get in shape. One day I will travel. One day I will write a book.

There is a Buddhist parable about an elderly monk doing heavy labor in the hot sun without a hat. A traveler noticed the old man and felt sorry for him.

“Why not have one of the younger monks do that?” asked the traveler.

“Because that would not be me,” answered the old monk.

“Why not at least wait until later in the day when the sun is not so hot?” proposed the traveler.

“Because that would not be now,” smiled the monk.

The old monk understood that only he can live his life and that the only time to live it is now. Imagine your best life. What does it look like? How close are you to living that life? What steps will you need to take to get there? What can you do right now to move in that direction?

Erica, tends to live in the present moment, but it took a big health crisis to wake me up and choose day one instead of yet another one day. A few years ago I was diagnosed with COPD. It is a chronic, progressive, incurable lung disease. I have always been into fitness and had every intention of retiring with Erica on a boat and sailing the seven seas. This diagnosis was a punch in the gut. I freaked out. COPD means gradually suffocating to death. In the end stages, people with this condition struggle for every breath and have difficulty doing simple activities like walking and getting dressed.

The comfortable fantasy that I will die at 96 having some kind of crazy adventure went right out the window. I became deeply depressed and threw in the towel. I drank heavily and obsessed over dying for months. This was also, of course, a very difficult time for Erica. Not only did she have to deal with her concerns over my physical health, but she also had to manage a husband who was mentally falling to pieces. Eventually, with her support, I took back control of my life. Many of the strategies I used to do so are outlined in our upcoming book, Guide for Aging Heroes. You may not have experienced walking out of your doctor's office with life-altering health news, but there is a good chance that at some point you will. How will you deal with it?

Emily Dickinson said, "That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet." My dad died from an aortic aneurysm at age 69. His doctor compared it to being struck by lightning. Not a terrible way to check out. He was never decrepit, never senile. He had tackled a purse snatcher 6 months before his death and spent the morning driving a transfer truck the day he died. I often wonder how his final days might have been different if he had known that the last sunset he saw would be the last sunset he would ever see and the last time he kissed my mother would be the last time he would ever kiss her. Wouldn't he have cherished those experiences and made himself fully present for them?

I think the gift of my diagnosis was an opportunity to re-prioritize. A chance to tune in to the people I love and invest myself in truly meaningful activities. I have no interest in quietly fading away. I will charge into the future with passion and creativity. I will engage the remaining stages of my life on my own terms and will not allow a diagnosis to spill wind from my sails.

Social psychologists describe two stages in the second half of life. Each stage has two possible outcomes, one positive and one negative.

The potential outcomes in middle age are either generativity or stagnation. The term generativity comes from the word generous. By middle age, many people have achieved a certain level of stability. Healthy adults at this stage of life are compelled to give back. They may invest themselves in raising well-adjusted children, nurturing a loving relationship with a significant other, or getting involved in their communities by joining a PTA, charity organization, or activist group. Generativity includes caring for future generations and is inclusive of all people, not just the people close to you.