One of my favorite columnists is Charles Blow of the New York Times. I appreciate his writing for two seemingly contradictory reasons: as a Black male, he provides this White female with insights from a perspective that is alien to my own experience; on the other hand, he frequently reinforces perceptions and insights common to those of us who spend some time thinking about the human condition generally.
A recent column fell into that second category, and I hope readers will indulge me in a bit of (non-political) Sunday philosophizing.
Blow was pondering what he called the “second phase of adulthood,” which begins, in his estimation, when one’s children graduate from high school or college and leave home. (By that calculation, perhaps those of us who have watched our grandchildren leave the nest are in our third or even fourth “phase of adulthood.”)
No matter how we calculate the phases of our lives, death becomes an inescapable intrusion. As Blow notes, parents decline and die, we lose friends and relatives, and those losses change us.
This seemingly sudden intrusion of death into your life changes you. At least it is changing me. It reminds me that life is terribly fragile and short, that we are all just passing through this plane, ever so briefly. And that has impressed upon me how important it is to live boldly, bravely and openly, to embrace every part of me and celebrate it, to say and write the important things: the truth and my truth.
Blow enumerates some of the changes he is making in his “second phase”–as he says, he’s started to manage his regrets, to forgive himself for foolish mistakes and poor choices, and “to remember that we are all just human beings stumbling through this life, trying to figure it out, falling down and getting back up along the way.”
He also recognizes the need to adjust our goals and expectations. In his case, he says “When I am gone, and people remember my name, I want some of them to smile.” (That seems do-able. In my case, I’ve gone from early dreams of writing the great American novel to wanting to die with my own teeth…a more achievable goal that I regularly share with my dentist.)
I think this particular column touched me because my husband and I are in the midst of one of those inflection points we all face. We’re downsizing–we’ve sold our home, and are packing and discarding, preparing to leave flights of stairs that have become harder to climb, and tasks of home ownership that have become more onerous as we age, and we are moving into an apartment that’s all on one floor, where management will be responsible for maintenance.
Transitions of this sort–common to all of us as we age–tend to prompt introspection. Where has life taken us? How do we want to spend the years remaining? What hard-won insights, wisdom or support do we have to offer our friends and families as they confront those same questions?
Those very universal questions seem more poignant, somehow, in our very polarized country–perhaps because there seem to be so many of our countrymen who refuse to ask them, so many unhappy people unwilling to see the shared humanity of neighbors who look or worship or vote differently, so many unwilling to consider the possibility that their way might not be the only way.
Learned Hand famously said “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” If there is one “marker” of maturity, one insight that comes with second–or third– phase adulthood, I think that recognition might be it.
I think Charles Blow would agree. Happy Sunday….