The World We See & Want As We Age: What We’d Tell Our Younger Selves
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We think we are so smart these days as we age. As the saying goes, “With age comes wisdom.”
This got us thinking about what we would now tell our younger selves since as aging adults we are able to see through the lens of experience and time with a better focus. Would we eat better? Exercise more? Get married or not? Have children or not? Spend more time with family? Work less? Work more? Move? Stay put? Compromise rather than argue and expend so much energy. Spend differently—more or less? Reconcile with family with whom we might have had arguments and disagreements? Same with friends?
What have we learned, and do we make better decisions? What might those be? Perhaps, it’s time to do what Vincent Burke calls a “life audit” in a Washington Post piece (Dec. 24, 2022), titled, “Rate your life — if you dare — while you’ve got time to change it.”
When you’re young, he says, you can change things. Burke writes, “Health and happiness are key words as you begin this appraisal. Consider whether it has been worth getting out of bed in the morning. Count friends, vacations, nights on the town, good meals, good sex. Take points off for bad things: bad decisions, bad boss, bad luck.”
We would say to a young Barbara or Margaret, live your life with clarity, purpose, joy and simplicity—in the sense that you are not bothered with pointless worries. We might counsel our younger selves to be more creative and compassionate, kinder, more generous, less critical, more hardworking and to worry less about other people’s accomplishments compared to ours. We’ve learned that someone else’s success does not take away from our potential, though we both always applauded our friends and colleagues. Would we laugh more, be silly more often, take more adventures?
Let’s live in the present and build on the wisdom we’ve accumulated before it’s too late. It’s our world to make in the time we have left. We can’t go back but can heed the advice we’d give our younger selves. Let’s dig in.
I moved several times for my former spouse’s work and became what is known as a trailing spouse. That’s just what many women did in our boomer generation. Our husband’s career success was foremost in the marriage. We catered to them, letting them go off to work whenever they needed, unwind on the golf or tennis court and often put our work and personal needs second. We were taught to be good wives, daughters, mothers, which sometimes also meant keeping quiet.
When I was divorced and moved East from the Midwest, I had time to finally focus on my choices. I had family East, who begged me to return (two grown daughters and an aging mom). For the first time in my life, I could make such decisions according to my wishes and needs—time for work, for exercise and painting, trips to friends and so on. I even bought a house without first showing it to anyone. How proud I was of my choice and the darling village that a relative suggested that gave me complete understanding of the term “walkability.” I could walk to restaurants, stores, a library, tennis and pool, hotel, art class, even a health food store for groceries.
Today, after living in the Hudson Valley for nearly 13 years, I find myself at a crossroads. I love my house and perennial garden but they’re too big for one person to manage easily. The house is happiest when filled up with friends and family but that’s not all the time, so it gently whispers to me, “Let a family with young kids come and laugh and grow here. Move on when you’re ready.”
But like so many other aging boomers, my dilemma is where do I go? I love my village, so I think I’d tell my younger self to go for a move but not just for the sake of moving. Do what’s right for now. Listen to others but follow what becomes my dream and know you can always move again, even if expensive and time consuming.
I advise myself to enjoy the years I have left by doing what most excites me here and be on the lookout if something turns up better. If I decide that staying and redoing my kitchen is best, I’ll go for it. If going smaller so I can lock the door and travel madly, then I’ll do that when I find the right, smaller house or condo that still offers walkability. In the meantime, I try to close my eyes each morning upon waking up, dig deep, be thankful for all I have and try to remain healthy, emotionally engaged rather than isolated and financially prudent about all decisions. The right answer will come is the advice the younger seeks and will follow.
I’d also tell my younger self to be far more adventurous. Take a year off after college before grad school, working and marrying. See the world as one friend did and hit every continent when long plane trips aren’t so arduous. If you spend a bit too much, you’ll recoup with work once you start or cut back somehow. Marry later so you first become really independent. Pick friends very carefully rather than let some enter your life without fully vetting them. Try them out in small doses over time. Also, try more exotic foods and learn to master what seems impossible through perseverance such as that high dive, cartwheel, headstand, aria, net tennis game, skating jumps and flakiest buttery croissants that Julia Child would be proud of. And even if anything worked on isn’t perfect, learn the wisdom of enjoying the process and journey rather than the final result. Perfection isn’t any better than good enough.
This last stage of my life is easier in some ways and yet more difficult than when I was younger. Simpler, because I have lived through so much including the most devasting loss of my slightly younger life, my husband’s death due to cancer. It’s made me more resilient. After 42 years of marriage, I had to start over. There was no blueprint. My older self could have offered guidance to that younger me, especially about how to take care of myself as someone who had been a caregiver. I looked after three siblings, three children and a husband who was sick for five years, plus two aging parents and one mother-in-law. I had a crash course in what’s it like to be on your own after never having been there before. Tough lesson to learn in my early Sixties.
If I were having a conversation with my younger self, I’d say, “Meg, enjoy your life in the moment. Life is short; it can change in an instant.” And it did. Lighten up. Use your sense of humor more. Laugh more. Smile more. Be grateful for what you have. And ease up. Worry less about the small things like messes, muddy shoes and crumbs. Appreciate the big picture. I’d set better boundaries and avoid getting angry at myself because I didn’t do so. I’d try to be a better listener—and more assertive in meeting my needs. I’d also learn how to negotiate and compromise. You don’t have to win or be right. What’s the point; what’s the payoff?
I'd tell my younger self that making a move 1,000 miles across the country to New York City and starting over at age 73 is doable. It's an adventure and probably not the last one in my life.
Here are some other conversations you might like to have with your younger selves. Feel free to share your collective age-old wisdom.
- Keep life simple. We try to simplify but it isn’t as easy as it seems. We are most successful when our goals are easy, fast and convenient. A Washington Postpiece by Tara Parker-Post titled, “For Better Health This Year, Keep it Simple,” (Jan. 1, 2023) states, “Researchers have found that health goals succeed when they are fast, convenient and easy.” This point of view is transferable to many of the tasks we do. Barbara has found that it’s easier for her to get healthy by cutting out wine and certain foods and exercising daily rather than trying a complicated program on an app, which she considered.
- Be yourself. Don’t subsume your life and needs for someone else. You count too. Dig down and figure out what’s best for you and how it will affect those whom you care about most. If they disagree, talk and learn to compromise. Compromise is a great leveler.
- Enjoy relationships. Most important, we’d tell our younger selves that friendships and relationships--and that doesn’t necessarily mean romantic--are all important. We’re beyond best friends. There is no such thing as the best, there are only people who contribute to our lives and those who, in some way enhance it, change it. Focus on those who make us feel better and to hell with those who criticize, compete and judge.
- Vary friendships.They come in different flavors, like different spices, which we wrote in a blog (11.26.21) titled, “Friendships: How They Nourish & Add Spice to Our Lives.” They range in strength and intensity. Sometimes common interests will suffice. Some have soul, some offer good will and good conversation…seldom get together but when do, you have a great time. Most important, friendship has to work for both you and the friend. It’s an exchange that makes your life richer and less lonely. Also, as we age, it’s okay to filter out and maybe end friendships that might be toxic. Who needs that aggravation?
- Help others with loss. How to handle someone else’s loss. What is the right thing to do and to say? It’s not, “I know how you feel.” You do not. However, after suffering our own losses, we view loss and grieving differently. It increased our sympathy and empathy. And we learned that grief gradually turns to gratitude.
- Learn from mistakes and regrets.We all make them and have them. We’d tell our younger selves that it’s okay to screw up (but keep it legal), if we learn something in the process. Try plan B or C. Don’t give up. Persevere. The saying by German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche is so true, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Know that it can be a painful process, but we’ll get through it…eventually. If you regret, either give up what you can’t change knowing there was a reason it happened and if you can do so now. Regret you never owned a convertible? Trade in your car soon. Regret you never lived in Paris or Los Angeles? If you can afford it, rent an apartment for a month. Often, it’s not too late!
- Give back. We were so wrapped up in our kids, our jobs, our promotions, our salaries, our trips and so forth, that maybe we didn’t stop to help others. And if you do a good deed (try to do one good deed a day), don't tell anyone about it. Now, with more time on our hands, we are able to give back and it feels so good. When you do so, everyone wins.
- Adjust finances more. Financial status was tricky when we were young. We worked to live well and sock some away for old age. Maybe we denied ourselves travel or a better car or home because we didn’t want to stretch our budget or, we did the opposite and overspent. Perhaps we went into debt. Now that many of us are on fixed incomes, we have to handle our money prudently. But, the biggest lesson we have learned, is that no amount of money can make our lives better. We’d tell our younger selves, live a little, spend a little, invest wisely and budget for old age. And if we have children or grandkids, give with a warm hand or while we’re alive so we can see their smile and enjoyment. At the same time, we try not to deny ourselves since life is short!
- Take risks. It’s about power and freedom…the gaining of it, the loss of it, the trades you make for it….Margaret lost a spouse but in many ways gained self. After her husband died, she left St. Louis and moved to New York City to be close to family. It was a risk to move to a new place, to make new friends and to find a new community. Her current dilemma is deciding whether to continue paying rent or to buy an apartment in NYC, making it permanent in the most expensive city in the world.
- Evaluate your life as you move through it.Is it the trajectory you enjoy and can live with? If not, change it before it’s too late. We think it’s critical to evaluate life after your first few years in a job, a marriage and even a friendship. If your employment brings you little joy, don’t stick with if you can make a change. At the same time, we’ve learned that the grass isn’t always greener. Money should not be the driver. If you make enough to live comfortably, be content. Find something that you’re passionate about and stick with it.
- Keep your mouth shut…at times.You don’t always have to give your opinion. We would stop ourselves from giving our take on things and being so judgmental. We wouldn’t complain out loud or say awful things when in the heat of an argument. And, when upset with our loved ones or close friends, we’d keep it closer to the vest. Broadcasting your woes to others can cause irrevocable damage. This is a lesson Harry and Meghan haven’t learned yet but may.
- Explore the world more. Travel is broadening and enriching. It doesn’t have to mean getting on a plane. For Margaret, it can mean visiting another of New York’s boroughs, taking a ferry, subway or bus. For Barbara, it may mean visiting another town in her upstate New York area, going to another museum, even shopping in a new grocery store.
- Say “I love you” every single day to someone. Make it routine, don’t take others for granted. Give more hugs now that it’s safer. And do something unexpected for another—bake that cake, buy a bouquet, take them to lunch.
- Don't always deprive yourself. Drink the expensive wine you've put away.Buy that expensive purse or shoes. Redo your kitchen or bathroom, if it's affordable. Take that once-in-a-lifetime trip. Get a facial or massage.
And though a cliché, we’d remind our younger selves that no amount of money and geography can replace the importance of relationships. These are the stuff of a rich and fulfilling life. The rest is noise.