What I Know Now That I Didn’t Know Ten Years Ago

What I Know Now That I Didn’t Know Ten Years Ago

“All we are is the result of what we have thought.  The mind is everything.

What we think, we become.”

                                                                                                             –The Buddha

Ten years ago I was 53.  My husband had just been diagnosed with leukemia.  My daughter just graduated from college and started a high-paying, stressful job.  I had a knee replacement and my executive coaching practice was increasingly unfulfilling.  A year later, when I was 54, my husband was dead.  My daughter was addicted to opiates and lost her job, and I started a full-time, university faculty position.  Could my life get any scarier?

My life did, in fact, get even scarier.  But I survived, even flourished.  And I’ve learned a lot about myself, aging, and how to become happy when everything I had counted on changed.  Here are some of my reflections on what I’ve learned in the last ten years:

  1. Grieving sucks the life out of you.  You WILL make it through the loss of a spouse or other loved one.  I survived by just focusing on each moment as it occurred.  Having a new job helped me to get out of bed each morning.  Railing at Chris for leaving me alone helped me to express my anger.  Being task-oriented kept me busy and of course, and having friends and relatives whose compassion knew no bounds kept me alive.  Stay active and don’t worry – it’s normal to cry at the drop of a hat.  Your friends understand and if they don’t, they’re not really your friends.  Join a support group – you will feel less alone and free to express your real feelings.  The memories of your loved one will never go away, nor should they.  But the acute pain will dull and you will discover new joys in life. Time really does heal.
  2. Learning and self-reflection can transform your life. While I was still a practicing coach, I attended a skills development program that focused on mindfulness.  The most powerful thing I took away from that class was understanding my own stage of adult development and how I could develop successfully into the next stage.  I began to grapple with the same question I always asked my executive coaching clients, “What are your most important values and how do you demonstrate those values on a daily basis?” That question became the drumbeat of my life as I planned all the changes that my looming retirement would entail – leaving my career, selling my home, caring for my parents, and moving to a new community.  Big changes in my life meant that I needed to make big changes to the way I thought and behaved.  It’s a journey and I’m still on the road.  My life continues to surprise and enlighten me.
  3. Achievement doesn’t bring happiness. In Buddhism, the purpose of life is to end suffering. The Buddha taught that humans suffer because we continually strive after things that do not give lasting happiness.  We commonly believe that external conditions cause our suffering – we don’t have enough money; our bosses aren’t fair to us; we aren’t as attractive as we should be; our significant other doesn’t appreciate us enough.  The list goes on and on.  I began to understand how “ceaseless striving” drove most of my life – the next graduate degree, the doctoral dissertation, the next contract, the next award, the next positive client evaluation, the next big project.  Yes, my list went on and on.  Now, I realize that my attachment to achievement did not lead to lasting happiness.  Instead it just led to the next goal.  I was addicted to achievement!  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with goals.  Like any other addiction in life, it’s only when goals become more important than anything else that they cause suffering.  Now I know that happiness isn’t elusive.  It is available to me anytime I choose to focus on the present moment and appreciate what I’m experiencing.
  4. Love is being with your best friend. One thing I know about myself is that I like being in a relationship.  I started dating a year after Chris died.  I dated a couple of toads before my prince, Jim, appeared.  We quickly realized how much we had in common and how much we liked being together.  Love after 60 is very different from love in our youth.  Chris and I spent most of our time at work, in school or taking care of our daughter.  Our relationship always came third or fourth in the chaos of surviving in the suburbs.    For me and Jim, it’s about sharing those present moments of splendor that I talked about earlier.  Last night we sat in our backyard as the sun went down and listened to the frogs start to emerge and flap around in the ocean channel behind our house.  We heard our resident great blue heron, Granddaddy, make one final, scratchy call before settling into his nest for the night.  We felt the evening breeze cool us off after the first 85 degree day of summer.  Together, we experienced our little corner of the universe as one and we were grateful.    It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

What have you learned that you didn’t know ten years ago?  I’ve always liked the Beatles’ song, When I’m Sixty-Four and it seems to fit into this discussion.  Enjoy!

When I’m Sixty-Four

The Beatles

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a Valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine

If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door,
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four

You’ll be older too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you

I could be handy, mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride,
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more

Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four

Every summer we can rent a cottage,
In the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck and Dave

Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four

Songwriters: John Lennon / Paul Mccartney

When I’m Sixty-Four lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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