As we go through life, many of us hit certain milestones. And while the overwhelming majority of us may have similar first tooth and first day of school stories, the numbers drop off and the stories begin to diverge when it comes to so many other kinds of stories. Not everyone goes to prom, graduates from high school, let alone college, gets married, has children. Not everyone buys a home, moves ahead at work, retires or travels.
To grow up in circumstances of instability, be they familial or economic, can severely impact available options in life. So too can legal and political circumstances; not every state, for instance, sanctions medical marijuana or same-sex marriage. And let us not forget how medical issues – our own or of a family member – can change the storyline of our life as well.
When I was younger, I remember writing a short story in which the character wonders if life is something that is additive, growing day after day, or if each day should be viewed as subtractive – one less day on earth of our allotted time.
While I do not believe in predetermined outcomes (I have to say, the High Holiday prayer about who shall live and who shall die and whether it will be by fire or water or beast or you name it, both moves me and bothers me to no end in its diametric opposition to the idea of free will), I have to say as I get older, the idea of a finite number of days on earth makes more and more sense to me as a framework for making decisions.
I think about life events, about how each of us is cycling through them. My oldest son is married, my youngest, like my younger step-son, in his first year of college. Grandparenthood is not as far away as it was when my own were alive or even when the boys were still in neighborhood schools. I look at my peers, a growing number over the last few years have lost parents. Time marches on. It accretes whether we want it to or not.
But unless we consciously decided to make each day count, unless we take the long view of where we are, where we are going and how we will get there, we can easily let too much time slide by. And one day, we may wake up and ask ourselves what we want our legacy to be. Or what we want to accomplish.
I remember once reading a letter to Dear Abby or Ann Landers, in which a woman wrote how she had always wanted to become a lawyer, but she was now in her mid-40s and it would require both finishing her long-abandoned bachelor’s degree and then going to law school. It would take her seven years and by that time she would be 50-something years old. And the wise advisor asked, “And how old will you be in seven years if you do not go back to school?”
I’ve personally struggled with the fact that I don’t know what I ultimately want to do professionally, that my life has been a path of eliminating what I don’t want to do and not working towards something definitive. I’ve even gone back to school without a clear vision of where I want it to take me. To some extent, that is fine. I trust it will all come together. More relevantly, it is less the professional aspect that I am thinking about in this countdown now.
There are those basic things I have not yet achieved but I do trust I will – lose weight, unpack the rest of the boxes from moving, control the paper in my life. There are those I enjoy – my wonderful new husband and I share a love for the arts, for socializing with friends, for doing interesting things. There are also those societal and political issues I am involved in that deserve attention as well – blogging and marching and reading are part, but so is taking an introspective self-inventory to see how I can become a better person. And there are those things I will have to become far more self-disciplined to achieve – exercise and read more, write that book inside me, start a group I committed to creating, volunteering more. This is the trickiest part.
Getting things done, shaping the path our life takes, shaping others’ too – all demands acknowledging priorities and requiring self-accountability.
But what we require of ourselves and what we ask of others cannot and should not be the same. Each of us does have a different story. Each of us does come from a different perspective and life experience. And each of these is valid and true. Last semester one professor, in talking about qualitative research, made the point that life experiences are made up of many “little t” truths. Not one “big T” Truth. I think understanding that is key to mending divides in this world.
Knowing this, and as much as much we don’t want to admit it, knowing we only have so many days left, it’s time to make them count.
Photo by Kity4438 courtesy if morguefile.com