What growing old(er) taught me

What age is actually “over the hill”? They used to day it was 40. The idea was that once we hit the age of 40, we were on the decline. I’m not convinced that is true any longer. I’m half a decade past 40 and feel like I’m still on the incline developmentally. I’m still learning how to deepen my important relationships, how to manage my finances, and I’m in better shape now than I was at 28 (and getting in even better shape).

I have rounded a corner–or summitted a hill–in one regard, however: I look back as much as I look forward. I mean this figuratively, of course. In my younger years, my focus was constantly on the life ahead of me. I constantly looked out for what was yet to come. My life was lived in preparation for that which was yet to be.

Somewhere along the way, my focus shifted. The focus began falling backwards as much as it fell forwards. I’ve begun to think about legacy. Instead of constantly considering questions like “What will I do?” I’ve begun to entertain questions like “What will I leave behind?” Or, maybe a less fatalistic turn on that question, “What will I look back upon?”

These new questions are questions of legacy. They are questions reflecting on the meaning of a life lived. What evidence of meaning and purpose were expressed by my life actions? Have the things I’ve done matched my aspirations?

Questions about legacy teach us a lot. They reveal our propensity to get sidetracked by the trivialities. They show how we let our goals get hijacked by our worries. They reveal the usefulness of our actions.

Getting older provides the practical wisdom to ask such questions. But you don’t need to wait until age 45 (like me) to consider legacy and how it can still impact future actions. In hopes of inviting you into the process of legacy, I’m offering some of the stark lessons revealed to me as I consider my own legacy.

Lessons of old(er) age:

Practicality is overrated. Don’t be so risk averse. I’m not really proud of the fact that I’ve made the safe and sound decision every time. Practicality can be a limiter.

People who accomplish their dreams often suffer for them. They endure financial stress to build the company they want. They put their careers on the line by quitting jobs that don’t lead them towards their personal goals. In short, they take risks and often suffer in the short term to achieve their goals in the long term. Amongst my biggest regrets are the decisions I’ve made for practical purposes.

Let go of the need to keep up. At the end of days, I’m not going to care that I had all the same crap that neighbor Jim had–nor that I achieved the career advancement that Jim achieved. I will care about whether or not I achieved what I wanted to achieve. I don’t want my last thoughts to be about neighbor Jim.

Plus, you’re not always behind. Someone else is trying to catch up to you. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you have information and device access that someone else dreams of having. I offer that for a bit of perspective.

Focus on the accomplishment, not on the failure. Many of us fall into a way of being that revolves more around avoiding failure than it does around achievement. Part of this is the risk aversion mentioned above. But it also relates to a perspective on success. We sometimes confuse not failing with being successful. But the truth is that successful people fail–a lot.

A version of Oswald redesigned by Walter Lantz
A version of Oswald redesigned by Walter Lantz

Walt Disney got fired for not being creative enough. He then founded a studio that went bankrupt. He lost the rights to his first successful cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. All limiting failures. But Walt did not allow any of them to become an end. Instead, he focused on what he still wanted to do.

Cultivating relationships is worthwhile. Relationships tend to bring more joy than just about anything else. They are worth more effort than so many other pursuits in which we divest our energies. Putting effort into nurturing relationships is worthwhile.

For many years, I assumed the cool thing to do was to just let relationships happen. I could do my thing and if other people were interested, then somehow a friendship would blossom. But it truthfully does not work that way. Developing a relationship requires that I make some effort to share with another person–and maybe be a bit vulnerable with them.

Cultivating my most important relationships with family demands that I assume a near-constant concern for how I’m working on that relationship. We often take our familial relationships for granted. But these relationships are often the most enduring and most joy-filled. They are worth cultivating.

Each moment has some possibility of beauty. COVID lockdown is included. There’s something refreshing about the slowness of life and the directed attention we’re coerced into providing one another. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I care for the people around during this time.

Unlocking the beauty of heartbreaking moments isn’t easy–nor is it always necessary. Sometimes it is important to grieve. When it comes to a loved one’s passing, the grief can be a form of beauty. We grieve because we miss the beauty of the person lost: We miss the joy of our shared relationship and the goodness of shared affection. Recognizing the beauty of something does not merely mean sweeping “negative” emotions away. Instead it presents a means for cultivating gratitude.

Invest in the retirement plan. You may think you need that dollar now more than you’ll need it in 35 years. But I’m here to tell you that the dollar you invest now will be 5 dollars in 35 years. If you want to feel more settled about money, then put your money to work making more money. A retirement plan is a great way of doing that.

Published by RyanDunn

Ryan Dunn has a bunch of certificates on his desk. A few are awards for content production and marketing. Another marks his ordination as a minister. One says he’s earned a BA in English from the University of Iowa. The certificate next to that says he earned an MA in Christian Practice from Duke (with honors!). Ryan is most proud, though, of the things he’s created: The Compass Podcast, some deep content on RethinkChurch.org, a series of practical spiritual advice videos, a long-lasting marriage, and fantastic little boy. (He enjoyed A LOT of help on all of those projects, especially the last two.)

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