If you meet someone not seen in 20 years, only to discover he is unchanged, you might ask
Why not? Shouldn’t he have been altered by time and experience?
Unless your old friend has been “on ice” — freeze-dried, flash-frozen, cryogenically preserved — isn’t change a reasonable expectation?
The writer Mark Twain thought so. He saw the long-gone youthful version of himself in need of lots of revision:
Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckleheadedness — and an almost pathetic unconsciousness of it all, that is what I was at 19 and 20.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as self-observing and motivated to reshape himself as was Twain. According to Edward Young in Love of Fame:
At 30 man suspects himself a fool;
knows it at 40, and reforms his plan;
At 50 chides his infamous delay,
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve;
In all his magnanimity of thought
Resolves; and re-resolves; then dies the same.
The 19th-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson was less amusing and more scornful on the same subject:
To hold the same views at 40 as we held at 20 is to have been stupefied for a score of years, and take rank, not as a prophet, but as an unteachable brat, well birched (spanked) but none the wiser.
It is as if a ship’s captain should sail to India from the Port of London; and having brought a chart (map) of the Thames (River) on deck at his first setting out, should obstinately use no other for the whole voyage.”
What follows is a short (and incomplete) checklist of areas of personality or behavior that might be expected to alter during adult life.
The Thing You Cannot Do. Let’s start with something different for each person.
Late in her long life, Eleanor Roosevelt was asked what guidance she might give to the people listening to her on the radio. She said,
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Indeed there is no better or more crucial potential area of change than whatever the “thing” is for you. What is it that is too hard, too scary?
Only you know the answer.
Physical Activity. “Use it or lose it.” T.S Elliot put it in a few more words —
The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.
Don’t let your bodily capacities go without a fight. Concede only what age requires, not more.
Interests. Do you read only the same types of books, listen only to the same music, engage in the identical hobbies of your youth? Some people keep learning, exploring, and investigating new things. They say that it keeps them young.
Beware of retirement without friendships and other interests to fill your former workday. Those who lack such things are often miserable. One is well advised to diversify one’s investments in activities and people, not just a financial portfolio.
Appearances. Ecclesiastes tells us “all is vanity.” That portion of the Bible reminds us that much of what we value has no real meaning or purpose. Thus, perhaps your attitude toward the “appearance” of things, whether it be a dress or your residence, might be subject to modification as you age.
The wise man or woman recognizes what is worth esteem and dismisses many contrary opinions of others.
Material Things. To continue the point just made, no one gets out alive. In the end, you leave life with as little as you had when you arrived. Nonetheless, some become more covetous, continuing to shop and buy in an apparent effort to outlast their possessions.
In contrast, others care less for “things” and disencumbered themselves, including giving their money away.
Self-Assertion/Anger. One might hope to learn diplomacy, be more direct, enlarge the capacity to stand up for oneself, and reduce sarcasm, not to mention outbursts and a desire for vengeance.
Food. Do you eat only what your mother made for you? Other things might be delicious. Do you dine the same way you did growing up or moderate your appetite and control salt intake?
Time. Most people become more mindful of time’s passage as they age, sensing its increased velocity with less of the race track of time ahead. Robert Southey wrote,
Live as long as you may; the first twenty years are the longest half of your life!.
If this notion doesn’t alter how you use the fleeting moment — cause you to employ it wisely — you are not paying attention to a basic fact of human existence. For example, famous musicians (Artur Schnabel, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Bruno Walter) narrowed their repertoire as they aged. They wished to concentrate on the music most meaningful to them, knowing the day was short.
Sex. Biology and age dictate some changes in this department.
Plato applauded the reduction of passion in older men. He believed they were not as much the plaything of emotions as those in the burst of early manhood. Rationality was thereby increased in his view.
An old joke about intercourse and marriage goes something like this. If you put a penny in a jar for every time you have sex in the first year of a permanent relationship and take one out for every time after that, you will never empty the container!
Money. If you know someone who lived through the “Great Depression,” you may realize traumatic events can generate long-lasting effects. Many of those who survived a decade of 25% unemployment remained very careful about spending.
On the other side are those who spend without regard to the possibility they might need it for a rainy day or their child’s education.
Ambition. Most of what is excellent in the world, and too much of what isn’t, is due to ambition. I’m speaking of blind and belligerent ambition in the latter case.
This quality tends to swallow younger selves, but some of the power-hungry are only chronologically mature, to humanity’s misfortune. Here are thoughts from Colin Davis, a 38-year-old symphony conductor when he offered them:
I think that to so many what happens (as we age) is the death of ambition in the conventional sense. The great driving motor that prods you and exasperates you and brings out the worst qualities in you for about 20 years is beginning to be a bit moth-eaten and tired.
I find that I’m altogether much quieter, I think; I don’t love music any less; but there’s not the excess of energy that I used to spend in enthusiasm and in intoxication (with it). I feel much freer than I’ve ever been in my life.
Friendship. Besides freedom from physical pain and financial instability, little produces mature life satisfaction as much as friendship. Many realize this as they age and come to value fraternity and intimacy more.
Appreciation. Some of us see the downside of life, others the upside. The unlucky may have good reason to be unhappy.
Unhappiness can also be found in how an individual perceives the world. His lived reality may not be much worse than the norm. As the losses pile up later in life, we do well to nourish our sense of gratitude.
Being Like Your Parents. Just about everyone tries to make sure they imitate only their parents’ good characteristics, leaving the rest behind. The act of disencumbering ourselves of this unwanted baggage is the job of a lifetime if one is honest.
Robert Lowell described its difficulty in “Middle Age” from For the Union Dead:
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.
A sobering thought. But then, much depends on cherry-picking the best of your parents.
No time to lose. Or, perhaps you needn’t make haste.
I guess it all hinges on what you think about the need to change.
But trust me, you do need to.
So do we all.
The top photo is of Mark Twain.
Thanks for this comprehensive “Checklist for Change” for becoming our better selves. I continue to work on most of areas mentioned in your post. I recall, with regret, that when I reunited with my mother and siblings after more than 30 years of separation, they were stuck in the mindset of our past filial relationships and were not open to the new person I had become.
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Thank you, Rosaliene. I’m sorry the reunion didn’t go well. Of course, we never know with certainty whether such an attempt will be useful until we make the effort. For some, regret comes from never have tried. It is always a roll of the dice. If life were a controlled experiment we would be able to test alternatives. We both know the rules don’t allow it. As the saying goes, you can’t step in the same river twice.
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