Something happened when I turned 50. Perhaps it was the roundness of the number, but it definitely marked a turning point in my journey to self-determinism.
I no longer felt the need to apologize for who I am, or to make myself do things I didn’t want to do. I literally found myself saying “I’m 50, dammit, I don’t need to do (fill-in-the-blank) anymore” more than a few times. It was liberating.
But with that liberation came an acute awareness of my own mortality. I realized that I probably have more yesterdays than tomorrows, so I took stock of my life and vowed to make the next 50 years (should I be fortunate enough to make it that long) even better than the first 50.
Here are some of the epiphanies I’ve had since I turned 50:
Drink the good wine: Do you have a bottle of wine you’re saving for “a special occasion”? Or maybe you have a set of china that you only break out at Thanksgiving or for super-formal gatherings. I no longer make that distinction. If I’ve invited a guest into my home, they’re special enough for the good wine, the nice china and the cloth napkins. And, more importantly, I’M good enough for the good wine, nice china and cloth napkins, even when I’m dining alone. The point of having nice things is to enjoy them. Family heirlooms are meant to be displayed, not stored in basements. Photos that bring back great memories should be printed, framed and hung, not trapped in a hard drive. Things I no longer need or want are given away so that they no longer clutter my home and my mind. The first 50 years flew by, so if I have, at best, another 50, I’m going to live them my way.
Maintain your car: Warren Buffett once advised young people to imagine that their parents gave them a car, but it was the only car they would have for the rest of their lives. If that’s the case, they need to treat it well and keep up with the maintenance. He was, of course, speaking metaphorically. Our parents did, in fact, give us one vehicle to last the rest of our lives: our bodies. And it is, at least partly, in our hands how well that vehicle holds up. I know a set of elderly sisters, all three in their late 80s/early 90s. The two oldest are still living on their own, driving themselves around town, and mentally sharp. The youngest is wheelchair-bound and dealing with several chronic conditions that have robbed her of her mobility and much of her vitality. The big difference between the eldest two and the youngest? The two eldest quit smoking in their late 40s/early 50s and they are both regular exercisers. The youngest kept smoking until her mid-80s and was never physically active. All this to say, even if you’re in your 40s or 50s (and if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you are), it’s not too late to adopt the kinds of habits that will help ensure your vitality for a very long time. And if you’re in your 20s or 30s, remember it’s not too soon to start treating your body like the lifelong vehicle it is.
Know that it may not be in your hands: Even if you do everything right – eat healthy, exercise regularly, meditate, etc. – you may still suffer a health setback or an accident that knocks you on your heels. Our odds of having a health problem increase each day the sun rises. Knowing that, I’ve decided to enjoy my current good health and physical fitness to the fullest. I may not be 20 anymore, but I’m still in pretty good shape. So I’m traveling everywhere I can, I’m fly fishing whenever I get the chance, I’m taking biking trips – basically, I’m going to get as much use out of this car while it’s still got a working transmission and the frame isn’t rusted out. I figure the future can either go one of two ways: 1) either my body is going to hit a wall of some kind (congenital or unexpected, either one), in which case, I can live with the consequences safe in the knowledge that I didn’t waste my health by being sedentary, or 2) all this activity will have forestalled the onset of health problems and I’ll get to continue traveling and fishing and biking until the day I die (perhaps in a bike accident in somewhere exotic).
Relationships matter: The secret sauce to longevity – in addition to exercise – is apparently social contacts, the closer the better. It can be easy to hole up at home and be anti-social – and it’s especially tempting to do that if you’re going through a hard time, such as during a divorce or the death of a loved one – but try to resist that temptation as much as possible. Maintaining social ties, especially close ones, is an important ingredient in our mental and physical health. This excellent New York Times article goes into the whys, but suffice to say, I’m making relationships a priority for the rest of my (hopefully very long) life.
Life goes by so very quickly. So use the years you’ve already had to inform the years you still have in front of you. And don’t spend a minute of it drinking bad wine.