Monday, November 28, 2011

November Reflections and the Passage of Time

We live, but a world has passed away
With the years that perished to make us men.
--William Dean Howells
It is late November and the leaves have fallen. The trees stand upright, their branches naked and awkwardly extended, but the sun sets early now. The weather was unseasonably mild this past Thanksgiving, the Pennsylvania air providing a warm respite from the cold chill of winter that waits quietly, ready to strike, with the change of seasons. The geese have yet to depart from the lake at Alverthorpe Park near my home, as if wisely discerning nature’s shifting currents. It is a physically peaceful time of year, disguising the anxieties of a weak economy and a troubled world.

In spending time this weekend with my daughters, their friends, and Andrea's sons and nieces, I was provided an opportunity to hear the voices of college seniors discuss their studies and hopes for the future. Soon to embark on a new stage of life, one filled with career choices and financial independence, these young people collectively expressed the same concerns; a deep-seated anxiety permeates the atmosphere. As final exams and papers await their return to campus, more pressing concerns linger; the need to secure a full-time job upon graduation, the advent of adulthood, and the notion of what to do with one’s life. It seems as if not so long ago I stood in their shoes; and yet, I have lived nearly three-fifths of my life since then. The times may keep changing, but the anxieties remain the same.

“Time is not measured by the passing of years,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, “but by what one does, what one feels, and what one achieves.” In talking with our collective children, I am anxious to dispense advice, to show that I am a sage possessed of wisdom and profound insight. But I soon realize that my counsel consists of words with no guarantees, adages and maxims intertwined with the unstated reality of my own life, of choices made and opportunities lost. It seems like only yesterday when my children were just entering school, the canvas of their lives yet to be painted. As Jennifer embarks on her final months of college and Hannah prepares for her college years, their father’s input is filtered through an independent lens. They are young women now, with career paths and friendships distinctly separate from the young girls who once sought their father’s time and attention. I would not have it any other way, but I wonder where the time has gone.

“Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation,” said Albert Einstein. “For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.” It is a comforting thought when I reflect on how quickly life passes us by. Try as I might not to live in the past, I nevertheless think back on decisions made and paths chosen; on what might have been had other avenues been traveled. Living in the present, my time occupied by work, financial responsibilities, and the everyday realities of life, I cannot help but feel that something is missing, that the years run too short and the days too fast. As I grow older, I long for the days of my youth, when backyard football games and basketball shootouts in our family’s makeshift court by the garage occupied autumn afternoons. With the passage of time, those days appear simpler, distant memories replaced by the serious stuff of life; the demands of careers, the costs of medical care, rising mortgage payments and tuition bills.

“Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves,” wrote Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, “We lose as much to life as we do to death.” But words are cheap. It is easy for me to advise others to make the most of life, to take risks for lives of passion and adventure. Looking back, did I do the same? Or have I simply chosen the paths of least resistance? “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,” admonished Henry David Thoreau. I would like to tell these idealistic, bright-eyed college students to do what makes them happy, that happiness and success awaits them if only they pursue their dreams. And yet, there are so many things I have wanted to accomplish, so many dreams yet fulfilled.

My greatest obstacle has always been the limits of my imagination and a strong aversion to risk. Many of my career choices have been wise and satisfying; my decision to attend law school, my career as a federal prosecutor, even my present career in corporate investigations. I have successfully evaded life in a big law firm, or as a managerial bureaucrat in a large, vastly impersonal corporation. But at the end of the day, have I not merely served the interests of the property classes and status quo? Certainly, my career choices were not risky. And I am as incapable today of predicting the future as I was thirty years ago, when I stood in the shoes of a college senior.

We journey through life in search of meaning and purpose. Bounded by conventional thought, the practicalities of life often stand in the way; concerns over money, the cost of insurance, the strictures of time. I occasionally wonder if life would have been more meaningful as a writer, or teacher, or legal aid lawyer. Is it too late to do these things now, to alter my life’s course? For a moment it sounds grand, and then, conventional thinking sets in and the inevitable, practical and necessary questions arise. How can I make writing, or teaching, or serving the poor my life’s mission and continue to support my children’s education and pay my mortgage? Perhaps if I was truly committed, I could make it work, somehow. The choices I have made in life are my own and, like most, I choose to protect my own interests, and that of my family, first. I don’t apologize for these choices, for the necessary compromises of life, but I cling to the hope that there remains time to accomplish more, to complete my canvas with the colorful brushstrokes of a life well lived, a life of meaning and purpose.

For now, I can only impart to my children and their friends the wise counsel of Carl Sandburg: “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.” Too often we fill our time responding to the demands of others, fulfilling societal expectations. In the end, however, we must satisfy our own longings for a life of love and integrity, service and sincerity. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

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