In a recent column, David Brooks said what he wanted from his readers for Christmas:
- “If you are over 70, I’d like to ask for a gift. I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way. You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories — career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge — and give yourself a grade in each area.”
Brooks went on to say that in November he would write a few columns about the so-called “Life Reports,” and he would post many more online. He was hopeful that the Reports would benefit not only old people, who rarely have such a formal opportunity for self-appraisal, but also those young people who are interested in thinking about “how a life develops, how careers and families evolve, what are the common mistakes and the common blessings of modern adulthood.”
In elaborating on the concept of Life Reports, Brooks mentioned that he had recently stumbled across some short autobiographies written by some oldsters for their 50-year college reunion. The following is one of his observations about the autobiographies:
- “The most common lament in this collection is from people who worked at the same company all their lives and now realize how boring they must seem. These people passively let their lives happen to them. One man described his long, uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded, ‘Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but it’s a little late now.’”
Because of my career in insurance, including the last 22 years at the same company, that observation stuck me like a 2×4 across the forehead. Even though I am too young for the demographic that Brooks is interested in, I am going to do a Life Report for me.
What did I do well?
My number-one objective in life has been to father a large family of good kids. So far, so good. Although the kids are still maturing (the oldest is 29, but the youngest is only 18), they show every sign of being exceptionally good kids. Using my modified Golden Rule, suffice it to say that if all of the kids in the world were like my kids, this would be one helluva great world. Grade A.
I am pleased with my career of work. Because I was raised with a farmer’s work ethic, I have always shown up for work and then worked hard to do a good job. Although I was blessed with energy and thinking skills that could have taken me higher up the ladder of success, I never saw anything higher up the ladder that would have been worth the sacrifice. Perhaps I am still affected by the mindset of the 60s regarding too much ambition, ego, and materialism. Grade A-.
I have always placed a high value on my relationships with friends, and that is consistent with one of my ex’s favorite sayings – the grass is greener where you water it. Because I valued my relationships, I devoted time and energy to maintaining them. In fact, I used to resent friends who shared their time with me only if they didn’t have anything to do with their family. While family should have the highest priority, it shouldn’t be your exclusive priority. Grade A.
What did I do not so well?
I didn’t do well at marriage. I was brought up to think that a marriage was forever, but mine lasted only 26 years. Grade C-.
I also didn’t do well with my community. They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but that couldn’t be more untrue if applied to my dad and me. Dad lived for his community and was involved in everything. By contrast, I had my family, my job, and my friends, in that order. My dad and his four brothers served in the military. By contrast, I was in Army ROTC in college during Vietnam, but then obtained a conscientious-objector discharge. A few years later, I applied for the Peace Corps, but was rejected for medical reasons. After changing my conscientious-objector views during law school, I tried to enlist in the National Guard, but was too old. And finally, last year I ran for the U.S. Congress and lost in the Republican Primary. Using my modified Golden Rule, my community and my country would be piss-poor if everyone acted like me. Grade D.
What did I learn along the way?
You must be comfortable in your own skin. I don’t know who coined that expression, and it certainly might be easier said than done, but there is no quicker, more instructive shorthand for how to live a good life. Unfortunately, many Americans are afflicted with too much ego and insecurity.
Raising good kids is easier than having a good marriage. As a recent convert to evolutionary biology, I might conjecture that raising good kids comes naturally, especially if you are comfortable in your own skins; having a good marriage takes hard work and discipline.
After years of drifting between atheism and agnosticism, I have recently settled into Deism. Having been brought up by Christians (my dad was a devout Catholic), I have always felt guilty for not believing in Christianity. My friend Mike Callen gave me some comfort by saying that I was more spiritual than most Christians that he knew, and further reflection in recent years has caused me to buy into the Deism of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin. So I am in good company.
For many years, I believed that my relationships with friends were highly important to me, but I have begun to question that. Since I have retired, I have not maintained many personal relationships and instead have drifted toward a life of personal life of reading and writing. Yet I feel content. Perhaps this is merely a phase, and the next couple of years will reveal whether I miss those personal relationships.
Having a good attitude is critical to enjoying life, and I have discovered a zillion techniques for maintaining good attitude – such as being tolerant of (disagreeable) people who disagree with you, and being nonjudgmental about people who have a different perspective than you.
Merry Christmas, David