I must admit, turning 60 seems to be important to me. I know it’s silly, but I think life circumstances have led to this feeling more than I would have expected a decade ago.
Well, I guess a lot of things would have seemed different when I turned 50 than they do now; but for that matter when I turned 40, or 30 or even twenty I saw each of those milestones as stepping stones to a bright future. Sixty does not feel that way.
Without a doubt, I have far less life in front of me than behind me, so it is now the time to consider how my life has unspooled. I see my life as a ribbon that has been tossed on the floor and I am like an ant walking along its length. From above one could see the pattern, but standing on the part of the ribbon where I am today, I can only see until the next bend. I’ve made my way from the start crawling as the ribbon turns and folded in ways I did not expect. I know where I have been, but beyond my line of sight, it is pure conjecture. I don’t even know if the part of the ribbon that I cannot see suddenly comes to an end or is hopelessly frayed…or does it suddenly get flat and easy to walk. I simply don’t know.
When we are young, we want to believe that we have the power to turn that ribbon to our will. What I can now see is that while we can choose how to walk that ribbon, we simply have no control over the ultimate shape the ribbon forms. We have no control over the place and circumstances of our birth or the skill set that is imparted to us by genetics and our parents. I was very, very fortunate; but to claim somehow I made that happen is utter self-delusion. My childhood circumstances gave me choices that most people simply don’t have.
There is a reason in Cervantes’s Don Quixote that the protagonist was a well-to-do hidalgo. Only those blessed by birth not to have to scrabble day and night to survive can go off on a quest to make the world a better place. Like Alonso Quijano took on the role of knight errant, I began a quest forty-odd years ago to make the world a better place. Like Quijano, I was sure I was special and I could defeat the evils of this world in single combat.
Like him, I was wrong… and right at the same time.
I became my own sort of Don Quixote and from the gritty streets of Chicago to the dusty back roads of Appalachia I have sought to slay the dragons that oppressed millions. And like Quixote, I found that my ability to change the world was an illusion. Looking back, I can see many of the monsters I sought to slay were simply windmills; while at the same time the larger forces of oppressive evil are very real.
What I found, as did Don Quixote is that the only real victory against evil and oppression comes at the small scale in which we lend a helping hand to those around us. It is not lost on me that while religious people talk in grand terms of changing the world; Jesus did not. When asked what was the most important rule of morality, he told the story of a single man on the road who came upon a single man in need of help and he provided that help without asking for anything in return. As a young person, I was not able to see the power of the story of the Good Samaritan, at sixty years old I can.
There is a temptation to look back on my life and consider that I, like Don Quixote, spent my life on a fool’s errand and wasted my time and energy. After all, I did not change the world nor slay the great dragons of evil and injustice.
Yet, I think back to a lesson my mother taught me and my brother over and over again. When we went camping as a family, the mantra was that we leave the campsite cleaner than when we arrived. As a child that made no sense to me; yet, at 60, I see it became how I saw the world. I might not be able to fix world pollution or global warming, but I can leave my campsite cleaner than when I arrived.
I can only hope that I’ve moved from campsite to campsite in my life’s journey, that I have left each place a little better than I found it. I would like to hope that for most people who have come through my life I left them just a little better off than when I met them. Perhaps even that is overly optimistic, but it is all I can hope to achieve. In reality, it is all that any of us can hope to achieve.
Alonso Quijano was right in that wealth and power and all the trappings of “success” are poor substitutes for the success of the spirit. It is the journey of leaving good in our wake that matters; not how large a wake we leave.
And also like Alonso Quijano, at the end of the day; it was the gifts of my birth and not of my doings that leave me with a snug and quiet home when my years of riding forth with my lance and sword to fight dragons have come to an end. From here on out, in my 60’s and in whatever years I will have past them my primary means of knight-errantry will be my pen (OK my keyboard). I hope to continue to write and to pass on the message of leaving that campsite cleaner than you found it (or as Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself).
And the transition from knight to sage is also a part of the path of life.