The life report — after 70
by Margaret Burns
Last October the New York Times columnist, David Brooks (one of the broadest thinking men I have ever read), asked persons over the age of 70 to send him a brief report “…on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not do so well and what you learned along the way.” I meant to do it at the time but life events overtook my intentions. However I sent it to my friends as an assignment for our upcoming Wise Women’s Slumber Party, a four day celebration, centered at the Abbey House in Winters, California. Eighteen women will reflect on the years we have had and explore future life issues, even though not all of us are, as I am, of une age certaine.
So here goes. Listen up.
Number One: Grow to like yourself.
Do whatever it takes. If you really want to be thin, get thin. If you really want to be a mother, get pregnant. If you really want to be a boatwoman on the Amazon, learn to row. Appreciate your uniqueness. The corollary is to understand everyone else’s uniqueness even if you don’t like it. Comparing yourself to anyone else is a waste of the time you have. Please acknowledge your ridiculous and annoying tics, and work on changing them. Like my tendency to always know some arcane trivia about everything and say it. More importantly, value your virtues – name them to yourself (not others) and build on them. As Margaret Thatcher said in the movie, “The Iron Lady,” “Your virtues become your character and your character becomes your destiny.”
Number Two: Take care of your body.
Start with the relatively non-replaceable parts – teeth and bones. Flossing is not just about a pretty smile. Weight-bearing exercises and calcium with vitamin D have long-lasting effects throughout your life. Avoid systemic diseases – the usual killers of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Did you know obesity and lack of exercise is a risk factor for cancer as well as almost everything else that can go wrong with you as you age? Your body is going to change and age no matter what you do, but good habits can make a big difference in the quality of your life from age 1 to 90 and beyond.
Be slightly vain but don’t count on beauty. I have seen, in both women and men, that learning early in life to rely on your beauty or cuteness can leave you with a lack of depth, or a lack of being appreciated for your other qualities. You can see this depicted in spades in the character Helen in the movie, “Bridesmaids.”
Above all – nourish your brain – it is not only the biggest sex organ you have, what you collect in it will bring you riches all the days of your life.
Number Three: Listen to your inner self.
Even if you don’t understand what it is saying at the time. Listen. And when your gut or heart or bones send you a signal that something isn’t right, pay attention and figure it out. The big mistakes I have made in my life (I am not going to list them) I have made because I let my head rationalize over what my body was telling me. Conversely, 40 years ago, after a four-month long siege of sciatica had me in pain, immobilized and on drugs, I figured out that it was due to hugely unexpressed anger. I controlled the lower back pain for over 40 years by figuring out why I was mad. Not surprising that the lower back pain started again the week I began cancer chemotherapy and ended the week of my last radiation treatment. That doesn’t take Dr. Freud to figure out.
Listening to your inner self, however it sends the message, is one of the keys to growing to like and appreciate yourself as a unique individual.
Don’t do things that make you feel ugly. I’m not talking about binging on Oreo ice cream once in a while. But screaming at your husband, “Knucklehead!” (or another appropriate euphemism), not only makes you look ugly but it can never be erased from his mind, no matter how good it feels to you in the moment.. Somewhere I read that you have to say 10 good things to make up for one denigrating remark.
Number Four: Choose to be happy.
Happiness or unhappiness exists in the brain, in your brain. It does not exist as a tangible substance in the air or because you are eating at The French Laundry, watching an exciting football game, having great sex or seeing the Taj Mahal. You can be happy or unhappy in any of those circumstances. You make the choice. You can be happy when you have cancer. Believe me, I know. Not because I had cancer, but it brought me closer to a loving husband. Now there is a big fat reward.
Number Five: Be realistic – awful things happen.
Accidents happen, illness happens, recessions happen, if not to you then to someone you love. Deal with it realistically. Or even with the smaller liabilities of life. Terrible boss? Try to work it out with her, find another job, learn meditation techniques so she doesn’t get to you or quit and take the consequences. In this area, I know whereof I speak. I lived on research grants my entire career. Every three or five years, I had to write a new grant with the distinct possibility that it might not be funded. Not only would I not have a salary but my lab technicians would all be out of work, too. Every three or five years I lived in dread of that happening. It was not only the loss of dollars so much as the enormous ego I tied to the fear that my ideas would not be good enough. Finally, finally, I learned to love writing grants. It was the only time I could really sit still and reflect on what had been accomplished and have the fun of planning out what we’d do next. It was a chance to take an overview of the research and find the best way to add new knowledge and contribute to the world. It took me twenty years but I finally learned to be realistic in this area.
During my working life I had several unhappy situations. Overall, they stemmed from the fact that I did not listen to my inner self or did not know myself well enough at the time. I like to direct things, control things. I should never have worked in a department where I could not possibly be head honcho. I compensated by finding other areas in which I could be Queen (my family nickname).
Do not forget that each of us is going to die. Accept it. What is possible is to live each day and moment with mindfulness and care. Find something every day to admire, be grateful for or learn. It is one more tool for growing to like who you are.