I’ve included some of my favorite photos that I’ve taken over the years; it’s not that they are terribly relevant to the content of this post…I just think they capture my life over the last fifty years.
So this is what 50 feels like. I have this urge to knock over a food display at Trader Joe’s, or order ice cream before the main course, or take a whimsical trip north for a lobster sandwich in Concord, MA.
Wait– Those are all things that I did in my 20s. Am I giving myself a little nudge to have some fun? To play a little more? To recapture the spontaneity that made those days so carefree and beautiful?
Maybe. It’s not a knock on my life now and where I am — God no. I am incredibly blessed with a beautiful family, a solid set of jobs doing what I love, and a passion to embrace every infinitesimal fraction of every moment existing right here, right now, in my present.
But a little more spontaneity sprinkled in to this incredibly blessed life? Absolutely.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, though, it wasn’t all about road trips and ice cream. In fact, there were plenty of times where I sought some deeper truth, some greater meaning to life and to my role in it. I get that we all have to go through that. It’s a personal journey, after all, and we have to figure a lot of stuff out for ourselves.
I have the chance to throw a little wisdom down to my youngers who are still making their way toward the big Five-Oh. I know that you have probably heard these tips plenty of times along the way. Nonetheless, I share them with you here, hoping that they might lighten your load a little and help pave your path with a smoother swath of freshly turned leaves and detritus.
So, without further ado, I give to you my “Greatest Hits” of wisdom learned in these first 50 years.
1. Everything Begins Within.
I think that one of the biggest derailers in my earlier years was allowing so much of the external world affect my internal being. Bad drive in to work? Derailed. Nasty note from a friend? Derailed. Things didn’t go “my way” as I had hoped/planned/wished? Derailed.
It seemed as if so much of my happiness (or any emotion, really) depended on external forces. I had surrendered control over to one and all in the universe. And, as a result, I was an out-of-control roller coaster of emotions at the whim of the world.
Eventually, I realized that it didn’t have to be this way. I was in control, and by focusing first on my inner core, I could ignite a limitless supply of energy and self-confidence to bolster my immune system against emotional derailments. When I begin with what’s inside of me, I no longer relinquish myself to the external factors surrounding me.
Recognizing that I am in control has changed my entire approach to life. It has removed the distractions and derailments and has allowed me to do the work I am blessed with the gifts to do.
2. Do the Work You Were Meant to Do.
I was fortunate to know my passions at an early age: teaching and writing. It’s what I have been doing for most of my life, and I have been wise enough to stay immersed in those two fields. Even so, I wasn’t always “doing the work” as best as I could have been doing, simply because I was searching for something bigger, greater, than what was already in me.
Or I just got lazy.
Foolish, foolish, foolish.
I’ve learned that nobody is going to do the work for you, and there is never, ever a “coasting” period where you get to take it easy. It just doesn’t work that way at all.
I remember thinking there would be a time with my writing that I would be able to slow down a bit, enjoy the money that was coming in from my sales, and take life at a slower pace. At that time, I felt like I was always performing CPR in my craft. If I stopped performing compressions, my efforts would be for naught, and my passions would die away.
Well, for one thing, the money has yet to come in. But even if it did, it wouldn’t give me license to relax. Doing the work means focusing your energy — always — on the passions and talents that you possess. This isn’t about compressions or sustaining a minimal existence of life; it is about using your energy in such a way that your work matters. It makes a difference. Nobody can do that for you. You have to do the work, and do it all the time.
3. Each of Us Is a Part of a Universal Connection.
I tell this story all the time, but what the hell. I’m fifty now, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time I repeat some of my favorite stories.
I think it was 1991 when I was “The Beast” in our week-long Summer Christian Camp at Central Presbyterian Church in Southern Maryland. We had hundreds of kids spending the week with us, and each day, we would do a sketch from Beauty and the Beast and tie it into the theme of the day.
On the final afternoon of camp, with about 500 kids so pumped up in our auditorium, I broke through the walls of the castle and became free of my self-imprisonment. Then, as is the case in any good Christian camp with a musical theme, we broke out in song celebrating life and Christ and everything around us.
There I stood on that stage in front of those kids, and the energy that resonated in that auditorium through our song and movement was absolutely electric. Until that moment, I had never felt so connected to the universe. I realized that we are a part of something bigger, something so very spiritual, that transcends our earthly, day-to-day existence.
We are all interconnected in ways that are both transparent and invisible to us. I was fortunate to learn this at a young age. At times, I have strayed from this connection, but I always come back to my core connection with the greater world. It’s not about Jesus OR Buddha OR any other spiritual source of worship; it’s just about establishing that spiritual and universal connection. In that vast space, we are all contributing to the flow, the groove, the way.
Knowing that has made me care deeply about what I offer to others in all that I do.
4. When There Are No Desires, All Things Are at Peace.
One of the greatest books that I have ever read is Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. In its 81 chapters of awesomeness, I realized that life isn’t about searching; it’s about providing.
One of my most favorite lines is, “When there are no desires, no expectations, all things are at peace.”
When I first read that line, I thought it was pretty stupid. How can you live a life without expectations? Isn’t that the same thing as living without goals? How ridiculous!
But it isn’t the same thing at all. When we begin to realize our role in the universe, we begin to let go of believing that we are owed anything, anywhere, and by anyone. We let go of the expectations of what others could, or should, do for us. We let go of what we think we earned, of what we think we deserve.
That’s tough to do. We are raised on the reward system, aren’t we? Even now, as adults, we are “compensated” for our work with money. We negotiate contracts for what is fair and right and just for ourselves. We live our lives in a give-and-get mentality. It’s all we know.
The idea of letting go of desires, then, is foreign to many of us. But when we begin to let go and really “do the work” and live our lives genuinely, authentically, to give, to serve, we find that we are rewarded in far greater and immeasurable ways. Some of these rewards are grounded in finances, such as promotions and bonuses. Other rewards are of a more ethereal nature, where we are granted the priceless gifts of love, compassion, and gratitude.
When these arise out of no desires or expectations, we truly appreciate their beauty and their significance. We are filled with gratitude from the blessings that have come to us. We do not judge or weigh their quality, or see how they “sized up” against our expectations. They are simply cherished for what they are.
And when that happens, all things are at peace. What a wonderful thing indeed.
5. Live in the Present.
Let me take you back a few years to 1989. It was my second year of teaching, and I was living in Southern Maryland and teaching at a small private school. This place was — and still is — amazing in so many ways. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by great educators and administrators who gave me the space to grow professionally.
In April of that year, though, my father died. I was living a somewhat Thoreau-esque life back then, in the woods in a log cabin, and the concepts of carpe diem and sucking the marrow of life itself were fueled by the reality that life is not forever. When I read, “The masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation” by Thoreau, I knew then that I was not going to be one of those men.
And the only way that I knew how to avoid doing that was by living in the present and embracing what exists now. This is what I have, I thought, and I will not take these moments for granted.
Since then, I have kept that mantra at the core of everything I do. I have strayed a bit now and then, sucked into the vacuum of the past or the potentials of the future. But I always end up in the present, grateful for what I have, and excited with the opportunities that await in the moment in which I am living.
We can’t go back to the past, no matter how hard we might try. And we can’t live in a dreamworld of how we want things to someday be. All we can do is work with our present moment, seize the power and the energy it holds, do the work, and be grateful for the opportunity.
6. We Are Constantly Evolving.
One of the ways I am able to stay “in the present” is by understanding that we are constantly evolving.
I might even add that, in our own evolutions, there is a certain refinement that is constantly happening, too. We evolve through our efforts and energies to learn, experience, and embrace life.
This is a hard concept to grasp if you are living in the past or floating in the future. Evolution doesn’t happen unless you are grounded in the present and staying there as you move forward through action and experience. It’s the only way we can evolve in this ever-fluid universe that we’re all a part of. When we become stagnant, our interactions become stagnant, too. everything dulls, diminishes, atrophies.
We are living, breathing organisms. We are fluid, evolving contributions to a greater swirl of life, of love, of existence that asks of us just one thing: Participate and contribute to the universal evolution of our collective existence.
7. Embrace the Charge and the Duty to Serve.
I learned at an early age about what it means to serve. My dad was a Baltimore City firefighter, and some mornings when he would come home, I would smell the remnants of his work, the burning buildings he battled to save. On some nights, it was about saving property; on other nights, it was about saving lives.
And on some mornings when he would come home, with soot still rubbed into his forehead along the fine line where his helmet had protected him, I would smell and feel the heavy reality of loss, when his charge to serve was not enough to save the lives of innocent victims trapped in the flames of a three-alarm fire.
Those moments were tough, but my dad persevered. He kept going back. he kept serving.
That stuck with me as a kid. And since then, I have understood the importance of working through those especially tough times with a focus on service. I guess it all goes back to the no-expectations way of living. If we focus, instead, on a life of service, of doing the work for the greater good, then our efforts are all about serving instead of receiving.
Dad died from complications attributed to a medical call he ran in 1986. To this day, his death “in the line of duty” (regardless of how the fire department defined it) has grounded me in a life of service and commitment.
Dad was never the kind of guy that would want any fuss made over the way he lived his life; that’s just the kind of person he was. But his commitment to duty, to service, provided us all with an understanding that our purpose on this Earth transcends any material good or self-serving act.
In this moment, we are here to serve. Period.
8. Run Loose.
I end with this little story because, with the first seven “Greatest Hits” being a little heavy, I thought that my brother’s simple wisdom captures the essence of everything I’ve learned.
When I was a kid and spending free time with my oldest brother, I would hang on every word he had to say. One afternoon, we were heading to a store to do some shopping, and we passed a jogger on the side of the road. My brother knows running; he was one step away from participating in the Olympic trials, but a heart murmur sidelined him. When the jogger approached us, he shook his head and said, “He’s doing it all wrong.”
I looked at the jogger who was moving at a pretty fast clip. He looked a little stressed, but I just figured that’s the way you look when you are running so quickly.
“Look at his fists, his face, his arms.”
I did. I saw a runner giving it his all.
“Notice anything about them?”
I shook my head.
“All tense. He’s spending all that energy to ball up his fists, keeping his arms stiff, and grimacing with fatigue.”
I had always thought that runners just looked like that.
“He needs to relax. His whole body needs to loosen up so he can put that energy into his heart. His lungs. His muscles that are really doing the work.”
It seemed so odd to me at the time that you had to be loose to run faster, but now it makes total sense to me.
As you are putting your heart and soul into the things you love and believe in the most, you have to go into it loose, relaxed, patient, and flexible.
There’s an old saying that the more you are like bamboo — flexible, able to bend in the heavy winds — the stronger you become. On the other hand, if you are stiff and brittle, you break easily with the slightest of breeze.
That’s how going through life works. Run loose and be the bamboo: deeply rooted in what you believe, but be flexible in the heavy winds that come and go (and they will.)
I leave you with this. James Taylor wrote a song called “The Secret of Life.” The lyrics have played a big role in getting me to where I am today. I hope they play with you in a similar way. They really are simple, and beautiful, and true.
Here’s to you, and all of us. Let’s just open up our hearts and enjoy the lovely ride.
Thanks for being a part of my wandering life. I am ever-grateful.