“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.
Giving is qualitatively more rewarding than receiving. Think of how uncomfortable it is to ask a stranger for a jump when your car battery dies in a parking lot. If someone helps you, you feel grateful and probably a little embarrassed. Now consider what it is like to be on the giving end in that scenario. When you can give a stranger a jump because they have a dead battery, you are the hero of the story and it feels wonderful. The benefits of altruism, kindness for its own sake, include a release of positive neurochemicals called endorphins. The same chemicals are released during the “runner’s high.” Altruism gives you a sense of fulfillment and gratitude for your own circumstances. Helping others puts your problems in perspective and even makes you physically healthier by reducing your stress! Generativity is the hallmark for success in mid-life.
The potential unsuccessful outcome in midlife is stagnation. Life becomes stale for stagnated folks causing them to be increasingly resentful, jealous, and self-serving. These people continuously try to fill the void in their lives with material gain. Snobs and braggarts fall into this category. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, the haughty lady at the country club, or the self-aggrandizing billionaire. Krishnamurti got it right when he said, “The greater the outward show, the greater the inner poverty.” Stagnated people often have everything society says should make them happy, but they are still empty. They want more. Their lives lack genuine purpose and no amount of money or power can relieve their need. What’s worse is they pass on this spiritual void to their children who suffer high rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Stagnated individuals typify selfishness.
How are you measuring up? Are you involved and engaged in making the world a better place or are you mainly just looking out for yourself and the people close to you? Most social animals will help members of their own group. A wolf will instinctually help members of its own pack but would be unlikely to show prosocial behavior to wolves from other packs. “Looking out for your own'' is an innate, animal behavior. Emotionally mature humans can do more. Humans can extend their regard to the people and things outside of their own social groups. This represents one of the noblest characteristics a human being can develop.
Regardless of your age, it is never too late to recalibrate your priorities. If you feel stagnated, make this day one and do something to foster generativity. Any random act of kindness will be a foot placed on the right path. You will be amazed at how a simple act of kindness for its own sake affects your self-satisfaction and shifts perceptions about your fellow human beings.
The final stage of life, old age, is marked by either integrity or despair. If successful, you look backward and forward with satisfaction that you have lived and are living your best life. You operate according to your own rules and not the expectations of others. You appreciate the virtue and wisdom you have gained. This is integrity. When you have lived with integrity, you feel whole and complete. Integrity defines success in the final stage of life.
Unsuccessful people in the last chapter of life experience despair. Their lives are riddled with guilt, regret, and hopelessness. They cry, "Why me? My life is over and what did it all mean? I never became the person I wanted to be. I never made a difference. It isn’t fair!"
Do you have a sense of wholeness? Are you at peace with how you are living and how you have lived? If not, what can you do right now to change course?
I love the idea of the Aging Hero. As Erica and I developed the concept, we had people we know in mind. They are people who are in love with being alive. They contribute. They create. They connect. They make a difference. They are living representations of generativity and integrity. The impermanence of life is a guidepost that provides direction and motivation to live authentically. I no longer have time to waste wishing my life away and neither do you.
Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” People fear getting started. Do not wait to feel motivated. Start now, regardless of how you feel. Motivation is born of momentum and momentum doesn't build while you are waiting around for the perfect mood to strike you. Life is happening while you wait! Forget about your feelings on this one and just begin. Joy and self-worth come from living the life you want and not from dreaming about that life. One day is an illusion. A bottomless abyss of delayed fulfillment. Leave your mark on this world. Do good deeds. Live the life you were meant to live. Day one begins now! Take up the challenge and be an example for others.