Eight years ago, I was playing around with Microsoft® Money and found an add-in for investment advice. As part of the program, it asked various questions about my general health background. Being interested, I followed through, answering the questions as honestly as possible then hit the “submit” button. The program digested my answers, thought for a couple of seconds then generated its answer. Among its conclusions, I found the rather disturbing prediction: “Life expectancy: 46 years.”
If you’ve done the math, you’ll have figured out that I was 42 at the time. Yikes.
Considering that I’m celebrating my fiftieth year of life today, rather than decomposing in a pine box somewhere, is merely a reminder that actuarial tables have the force of neither physical nor human law. The longer you live, the longer they expect you to live. (That is, no combination of answers will ever cough up the result “This guy should have died four years ago,” or “Check your watch; you could go any second”). In fact, since 1996, when I survived being robbed at gunpoint for the second time, every breath I’ve taken has been in the knowledge that life is an unmeritable gift.
“Many live that deserve death,” Gandalf chides Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring, one of many lines in the book the movie wisely kept. “Also, many have died that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then be not to eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
The following are the lessons I’ve learned in my fifty years:
- I’ve learned nothing that no one else has learned before. The most salient feature of truisms is that they are true, and that they are validated by centuries of human experience; at their best, they’re crystallized common sense. They aren’t the apex of wisdom, but no one ever became wise who dismissed them as somehow outdated. Human beings haven’t really changed. We’re still the broken half-animal, half-angel we were when the books of Proverbs and Wisdom were written. Half a hundred philosophies have come and gone; old saws and maxims still remain.
- It really does matter what other people think of you. Whether you like it or not. Just ask anyone who’s ever applied for a job, defended a thesis/dissertation, or stood in front of a jury of their peers awaiting a verdict. The kind of people who go around saying about themselves “Honey badger don’t care” need to wear a sandwich-board sign — “DANGER: POTENTIAL DISASTER AREA” — so the rest of us can avoid their self-immolation. It doesn’t follow that you have to make your life a study in conscious conformity. However, your reputation can make your life easier or harder, so it’s nothing to build without thought or awareness of consequences.
- So far as you can, choose your battles wisely. Doing something to “show those so-and-sos they can’t push me around” is possibly the dumbest reason to do something overly risky or counterproductive. (That you want to do something overly risky or counterproductive in the first place is usually questionable enough.) Choose to fight because it’s the only morally correct option left, or because it’s the only way to secure your life or reputation. Don’t fight because giving in will put you out of your way, or make you feel silly, or force you to (gasp!) shave and wear a tie.
- Refusal to follow the herd doesn’t make you a leader. More often than not, not being a follower just makes you lunch for predators. To be blunt, there are too many people who pride themselves on their independence when in fact they’ve simply joined another herd … and not as a leader.
- Utilize G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy: Never tear down a fence until you know why it was put up to begin with, and can reasonably determine that the need no longer exists. The most valuable thing I learned from ignoring rules is that usually each rule was there for a pretty good reason.
- Question authority only when you have good grounds to believe authority is in the wrong. Authority tends to be one of those things that, cetatis paribus, it’s better to have than not have. Certainly, the generation that taught us to question authority doesn’t suffer that challenge very well since they took charge. We learn from our ancestors and predecessors, so we don’t have to rediscover fire, and reinvent the wheel every generation. (This fact is as much true of law and social organization as it is of science and technology.) Ultimately, there will be someone who knows more about a subject than you do, and people who are legitimately empowered to “be the boss of you.” A little suspicion or skepticism goes a long way; rebellion for rebellion’s sake and doubt for the sake of doubt are mostly self-defeating.
- Bad news does not get better with age. Just ask Milwaukee archbishop emeritus Rembert Weakland.
- For the most part, it’s easier to be honest and obey the law than it is to hide illegal, dishonest activities. I could never succeed as a Mafioso; I’m way too indolent to hide my tracks, whether you’re talking about taking out a stool pigeon or juggling the books or running numbers. (Running? I run my mouth and jog my memory, and that’s all the exercise I get.) Just when you start to think that crime pays, you get tripped up on tax evasion. Save yourself the effort, the legal fees and the jail time — just obey the law.
- God forgives; the universe is not as tolerant. Even well-planned, thoughtfully considered sins come prepackaged with potential consequences; most sins are neither well-considered or well-planned. Some say that “sin makes you stupid”. I disagree — while most sins are stupid, foolishness is a consequence of the Fall. While the universe is pretty tough on sin, it’s tougher on foolishness even when the folly isn’t sinful in se.
- Winning an argument isn’t worth losing a friendship.
- Rush (the musical group, not the radio personality) was right: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” A person who lets events overwhelm him through indecisiveness is neither a legitimate victim nor a valid object of pity.
- This night your soul may be required of you. Or the soul of someone you love. The next time you see them, the last time you saw them, could be the last. There are plenty of people out there living with the guilt of knowing that the last thing they said to a departed loved one was something petty or hateful; that the last opportunity they had to do something nice for them was put off for some trivial reason. Don’t wait; don’t part in anger; don’t leave a kindness undone. Plant a flower where you think a flower might grow.
- Every morning when you wake up, every night before you go to bed, kneel and thank God for the gift of another day.
One final thing I’ve learned goes against the blogger subculture, yet I can’t help but repeat it: Never miss a good chance to stop talking.
© 2014. Anthony S. Layne. All rights reserved.