David Brooks asked his elderly (70 years and older) readers to write him to share lessons they’ve learned from their lives. He’s written two columns about it (here and here). They’re fascinating, especially the second one. For example:
Divide your life into chapters. The unhappiest of my correspondents saw time as an unbroken flow, with themselves as corks bobbing on top of it. A man named Neil lamented that he had been “an Eeyore not a Tigger; a pessimist, not an optimist; an aimless grasshopper, not a purposeful ant; a dreamer, not a doer; a nomad, not a settler; a voyager, not an adventurer; a spectator, not an actor, player or participant.” He concluded: “Neil never amounted to anything.”
The happier ones divided time into (somewhat artificial) phases. They wrote things like: There were six crucial decisions in my life. Then they organized their lives around those pivot points. By seeing time as something divisible into chunks, they could more easily stop and self-appraise. They had more control over their fate.
I had never thought of it that way, but there seems to be something intuitively right about this. I think that the “chapterizing” of one’s life is part of a more general approach to living your life as if there were a narrative spine to it. I have always believed, without knowing quite why, that I have a divinely ordered path through life, and that the path is more to be discovered than made. Of course the act of discovering this path is also an act of making the path, because even if God has an ideal for us, He also gives us free will. The point, though, is that I have always assumed that there is a purpose to my life, and part of my task is to discover that purpose and live by it.
When my sister was told that she had Stage IV cancer, she fell back on her bedrock conviction that God had a purpose in giving her that cross. She never wasted any time trying to figure out why this terrible fate had befallen her. She deeply believed that this would be a pointless exercise in self-pity, and one that couldn’t possibly lead to a satisfactory answer. All it could do is to sap her will to live, and to heal, if that was God’s will. Better to accept it, she believed, and to live as joyfully as she could for as long as she could. Ruthie couldn’t have done any of this if she didn’t believe that her life, and everyone’s life, was not sound and fury, signifying nothing, but was shot through with purpose and meaning, however dimly perceptible.
More from Brooks’s most recent column:
Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them. For a time, our culture celebrated the rebel and the outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold. They were forever in revolt against the world and ended up sourly achieving little.
Isn’t that something! Our popular culture valorizes the Rebel, yet failed rebels are the most miserable people. It’s surely not the case that mere conformists are happy heroes. It must be true, then, that the happiest and most accomplished people find a way to live out their own narrative, and to find fulfillment, within the natural limits of our lives and circumstances. This doesn’t necessary make for the most exciting television. But it makes for a good life.