Over the past year I have had the pleasure to be part of a number of fiftieth birthday celebrations including my own. For those of us born in 1961, it’s been a year of dinner parties, surprise trips, sometimes small intimate affairs and at times large raucous events. Regardless of the format, this event has typically brought friends together to recount events, reflect on the passing years, to tell stories and on the whole “celebrate” this so-to-speak milestone. It was at one of these recent birthday events that I was reminded of a fundamental lesson of life.
It was the fiftieth birthday of a dear friend, a great guy that I have known since 1979 when I met him as a college freshman. As we started making plans for get away weekend to celebrate the event, we had a late night phone conversation that shed a little light on his mindset. With quiet sincerity, he shared that he felt that more than half his life had probably passed by and what had he really accomplished. He wasn’t sure that his professional accomplishments had fulfilled his youthful potential and all in all, was feeling pretty let down by life. I tried all the obvious angles of response, reminding him of his healthy beautiful children, his successful 20+ year marriage, etc., really to no effect. I am certain that many of us in our “middle years” have probably had some sort of this same type of reflection, this same uncertainty about what we’ve accomplished and what this thing called “life” is all about. Indeed the art and literature over the centuries is filled with humanity’s pondering the infinite question of the meaning of life. (If you haven’t seen Monty Python’s film “The Meaning of Life”, add it to you list immediately!) I am not suggesting that I have uncovered some unique insight to this eternal question, but my friend’s fiftieth did indeed remind me of an important “point of view” on this whole topic. That “point of view” is forward!
As I thought about my friend’s comments/disappointments/frustrations, it struck me that all of it was a reflection on what HAD or HAD NOT occurred to this point in his life. It was all in the past tense, all in reflection, all looking at life through the rear view mirror. None of the perspective was influenced at all by what MAY lie ahead. What challenges/adventures/experiences MIGHT be around the corner of life? What new relationships/friendships/acquaintances may be just around the corner? How can we all so easily fall into the trap that the past is somehow more valid that the future. Both the past and the future are real, both true, both important yet with one major distinction. There is an infinite INABILITY to affect the past, while there is an infinite ABILITY to affect the future! With that “truth” in mind, the future is actually a lot more important than the past. It’s “influencable,” it’s“dreamable,” it’s possible, it’s unfinished, it’s clearly yet to be!
It’s here that I want to reflect on the last few months of my friends Bruce Paynter’s life. I’ve written a number of essays about my time with Bruce, his battle with ALS, the amazing conversations I had with him as he approached his own mortality. One thing that I haven’t shared was his zest for life as his disease progressed. I remember so clearly a day when I was with him at the hospice facility just a few weeks before his passing. Through a bi-pap respirator, he not only wanted me to meet all his nurses and the volunteers, he talked with all of them about the challenges in their lives. He wasn’t some sort of passive depressed patient. Bruce was living, having an impact on the people around him, and building new relationships with a clear sense of his limited time. Writing this with tears in my eyes, I not only miss my friend Bruce but continue to be inspired by him!
We must remember that life is precious and fleeting for all of us. It’s truly a treasure to have a chance to affect the “future” of our lives. Keep my friend Bruce fresh in your mind, chatting up the staff of the hospice facility with little time left in his life. Whether we have weeks, years, or maybe decades to live, let’s all try to push away the rear view mirror and stay focused, engaged and inspired by the road ahead!
post script: in an homage to Bruce's love of music, I needed to include these wonderful lyrics from Neil Young ...
Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you're thinking that
You're leaving there too soon,
You're leaving there too soon.