or perhaps just something that happens to human beings of a certain age.
Lately I've experienced a series of small epiphanies, flashes of astounding clarity that feel like messages coming back to me from an older, wiser version of myself.
STRUCK BY BEAUTY
They say hindsight is twenty-twenty. The trouble is, of course, that you can't benefit from it until it's already too late to do anything about it…or can you?
The latest of these little flashbacks from the future occurred just yesterday, as I drove to work. I'd been absorbed in the usual trivial logistics of my morning routine: having breakfast; scanning the paper; collecting stuff I might need for the day; rolling the trash can in from the curb; getting in the car and setting off for my office.
Pedestrians and other drivers turned from nameless, faceless obstacles I had to negotiate to living, breathing people I could care about.
When you do the same thing every morning for decades, it gets pretty much programmed into you. I make all the correct turns, stop at all the red lights, pick up a latte at the coffee shop and arrive at my office building—all with hardly a conscious thought of what I'm doing.
Yesterday was different, though. Just as I was turning onto University Avenue, a thought suddenly snatched me from my reverie, a realization of how much of my life I'm taking for granted. I'm not sure what the catalyst was—most likely a stirring piece of music on the radio. But all of a sudden I was seeing everything differently.
The unexceptional clouds became amazing clouds; the snow, no longer just random splashes of white, struck me for its exotic beauty—a wonder most people on earth will never experience; pedestrians and other drivers turned from nameless, faceless obstacles I had to negotiate to living, breathing people I could care about. Peace and freedom, conditions I nearly always take for granted, suddenly enveloped me in a radiant glow of gratitude.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Where, I asked myself, was this acute awareness, this fresh perspective, coming from?
More than just a passing notion, it felt like my point of view had shifted from that of a man with all his options still pretty much open to him, to a man 15 or 20 years older. This older man had already endured some of the losses most of us will inevitably, grudgingly, trade for living a longer life.
It dawned on me that this voice was my own,
that of the man I have yet to become.
He could no longer be trusted to drive. It was assumed he would no longer work. He was unable to walk very far on his own. Many of his family and close friends had passed away.
The one capacity that hadn't yet betrayed him was memory. And here he was, in the car with me—in the welcoming space of my consciousness—sharing the bittersweet wisdom of that perfect, twenty-twenty vision of hindsight. It dawned on me that this voice was my own, that of the man I have yet to become.
COMINGS AND GOINGS
The man told me he'd had very few regrets about his life, but one would haunt him forever: complacency. Here with me he could see so clearly what he'd taken for granted for most of his life, those trivial events that comprise most of our daily experience and which become so commonplace that we no longer fully appreciate what they mean.
But to this old man that meaning was quite clear indeed:
You, he pined, still have the freedom to go wherever you want, even if that's only these two rote miles to work. To me, that simple jaunt would mean the world.He reminds me…of the curiosity and playfulness
You still enjoy the sweet blessing of communities of your own choosing. I am, no matter how nicely you put it, institutionalized.
You can still observe, with wonder, the routine comings and goings of your fellow human beings, and feel your shared humanity. My peers no longer come and go any more than I do.
You still bask in the astounding beauty of Nature—the kind to be found in wilderness if that's what you choose, but also in this most ordinary urban day. I will consider extraordinary the day someone takes me outdoors…anywhere.
of childhood that still smolder somewhere inside humans of any age.
THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD…?
As I pulled into the parking lot, my visitor went on his way, but not before asking me a couple of questions:
When you reach the place where I am now, will you look back on your life with bitterness and a sense of loss as I do?
Or will you have the grace to remember these moments of clarity you're having now, and focus not on what you've lost, but on the many, many precious gifts you've received…and still receive?
Not just the big gifts like life, good health, a loving family, a relationship with my higher power, but also the simple, everyday wonders of Nature and humanity that surround you every day.
Perhaps most importantly, will you have the well of joy, the generosity of vision to believe that such wonders still exist, if you let them, no matter how "small" your physical world?
I guess time will tell.
I hope my older, wiser self keeps coming back for these little visits. He reminds me—in the voice of someone who knows and cares—of the very things I believe in and pretend to write about: the curiosity and playfulness of childhood that still smolder somewhere inside humans of any age; patience; challenges that test your faith, connect you with others and make you grow; the eloquence of just sitting silently with someone you care about…
…and yes, I suppose, the luxury, the guilty pleasure, of habit.