When I attended my 20th high school reunion, it looked as if status and appearance mattered greatly to the assembled throng. Friends came to an identical conclusion. It could have been called a “Festival to Impress.”
I wasn’t that impressed.
The 50th reunion was different. No one cared about what you’d done professionally or were still doing. Friends, old and new, were pleased to talk, get to know you in some depth, and share the light and dark sides of distant memories.
If you’d achieved something worthwhile, you were now at ease with yourself. Everyone seemed grateful they were still in decent health, pleased to laugh with each other, and happy most of those they cared about were alive.
Of course, some who didn’t attend felt ashamed of their place in the world or how they looked. Others, also absent, felt no large attachment to the school or their classmates. They moved on, as the saying goes. Nor did embittered souls want to remind themselves of longstanding anger or sadness. Perhaps they recalled their time at Mather High School as an accumulation of humiliating experiences.
All of this raises questions about what is of value in any life. I can’t offer you a personal prescription, but I can relate a little about myself and what I know of those closest to me. Here goes a short version of what is important to me now and what isn’t.
Having lived almost 10 years since retirement, I’ve become rather indifferent about the kinds of items you put on resumes. My ego is still helpful for taking a stand about things, but I don’t spend too much time pulled back by my history or driven to look far ahead.
That is not to say I have no idea what is ahead, though I’m not expecting to vanish soon if you get my meaning.
I have a minimal selection of regrets and recently reduced that number by apologizing to an old friend to whom I was unkind years ago. He said he’d been thinking about me and hoping I’d do just that.
I have very little in my life worth hiding, and I tend to talk about anything you want to hear from me.
I want to keep learning, which means reading and engaging with people. An instructor in a Shakespeare course I just began said he would not only question each of us orally during class but hoped to make us a bit uncomfortable when he required us to justify our conclusions; the better for our understanding to grow.
When I heard that, I felt like jumping for joy. Seriously.
I care deeply about the well-being of loved ones and friends. I am at the stage when the latter are swept away without fanfare.
Everyone I know my age must deal with one malady or another, and all with aches and pains. In general, these are uncomfortable conditions rather than mortal ones so far. We all adapt.
As an old, retired psychologist, I won’t tell the young what is ahead of them if they live as long as I have. They’d neither understand it nor believe it. Young people cannot imagine the physical changes ahead, and I don’t want to be the guy to tell them. Better they just assume it is all either magic or bad luck.
When I became a new father, I hoped my children would achieve something meaningful. But, you may discover for yourself that regardless of what they accomplish, in the end, you care about their health and happiness. Your approach to your grandchildren is much the same.
Woody Allen commented about the value of accomplishment in a conversation with Dick Cavett just after Groucho Marx died in 1977:
He had achieved everything I wanted to achieve as a comedian but he still got old and he still aged, and nothing special was going to happen because he had achieved this enormous artistic accomplishment.
What did it mean anyhow — that he was going to get a long obituary?
I tend to agree with Woody on this point.
I have little interest in what is said about me, and I don’t expect, need, or deserve anyone cutting down part of a tree to produce the paper needed to enhance my posthumous reputation in the printed news. All who survive me, whenever that happens, will be far better off with the tree.
One piece of advice I shall leave my kids is that it’s OK to tell jokes about me and to imagine I’m laughing with them. No hallucinations of me allowed, however.
Speaking of jokes, I laugh more than I ever have. If you must choose between viewing life as a tragedy or a comedy, I just told you how I prefer to vote. Not everything should be taken with grave severity.
Being a “good” person is not as easy as being kind, though kindness is necessary. It is also a matter of what you do to help repair the world. That means some combination of effort and giving away money unless you are down to your last dollar.
And yet, I don’t want you to think I would leave it at that upon “taking off.” Don’t assume the humans you care about know how you feel about them. Considering it is nice, repeat it to make sure, and keep doing so. Endlessly.
With my kids and grandchildren, the last thing I say on the way out the door after every weekly visit is, “I love you.” We hug at the same time, too. So it has been and will be.
What would be better than to offer those three final words and a hug?
OK, maybe a kiss, too.
Greg Williams drew and uploaded the caricature of comedian and movie star Groucho Marx to Wikimedia Commons. With her generous permission, the second image is Laura Hedien’s photograph of the Chicago River at the End of December 2022: Laura Hedien Official Website.