Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Life Goes On: Taking Stock at 53

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. – John Lennon
During my sophomore year in college, I took a course on monetary policy taught by a gentle, elderly professor named Dick Liming. Boasting a full head of curly white hair, Professor Liming was a bespectacled, happy-go-lucky sort, a genuinely absent-minded professor straight out of central casting. With a pleasant disposition and friendly, approachable air, the professor would often stop by the Student Union for a mid-afternoon coffee break. One day, the professor invited me to sit down at his table and discuss with him some pressing issues involving macro-economics and the government’s role in the economy. Over the course of the semester, he made it a habit to invite students to sit with him while he held court on issues of national and global import, offering his opinions, knowledge, and at times radical concepts on a wide variety of topics, mostly in an effort to generate a lively exchange of ideas. A proponent of John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith, schools of thought that remained influential in the late 1970’s, Professor Liming helped economics come alive for me. From the quiet, tranquil confines of Springfield, Ohio, the professor’s discourses made relevant what was happening in U.S. politics, economics, and the world around us.

I do not recall all of the things we discussed during these talks. But I remember the sense of intellectual excitement I felt as I discovered and developed my own insights on topics about which, only a few years before, I knew nothing. I loved feeling it was possible to make sense of the world and to envision a role in making it better. At Wittenberg, I felt compelled to make up for lost time, believing I had wasted my high school years on the narrow pursuits of adolescence, lacking insight into what life had to offer in the present or foresight into what lay ahead.

One spring afternoon, sensing my uncertainty about the future, Professor Liming discussed his own course in life. “I was a young buck out of Harvard,” he said of his more youthful days, “Full of energy and ambition, I had the world at my fingertips.” He talked of his career in the banking and insurance industries, and later academia; the mistakes he made along the way; and the notion of intellectual contentment he had finally found at Wittenberg. In listening to the professor speak, I sensed he could have accomplished more in his career and traveled in more powerful circles, but in the end he had chosen a quieter, less remunerative, more studious path. He seemed a happy man, content with his life’s choices, overlooking his declining health as he embarked on his twilight years. From these conversations, I desired a life of intellectual fulfillment, perhaps as a professor of economics, teaching and molding young minds at a place like Wittenberg; or a life in politics and government, making policy and changing the course of history for the better. The possibilities were limitless, or so I came to believe during these formative years, though I knew not which path to take or where it might lead me.

Much has happened since my afternoon coffees with Professor Liming. Within a few years, I attended law school in Washington, D.C. – not the direction I previously envisioned – and soon began a career as a federal prosecutor. For eighteen years, I made opening statements and closing arguments before juries in big city courtrooms far from the gentle hills of southern Ohio. No longer the shy kid from central New Jersey, I navigated a world of cops and robbers, crime victims and crackheads, drug dealers and murderers, judges and street-wise lawyers. I argued cases in esteemed courts of appeal in Washington and Philadelphia before life-tenured, Presidentially-appointed judges, some of whom would later serve on the Supreme Court. As a prosecutor and now, for the past several years, a managing director of a corporate investigations firm, I have been involved in many interesting cases encompassing a wide variety of life. I have traveled far from the banal days of my suburban youth, when I lived in a solitary world of imaginary heroism far removed from the realities of everyday life, squandering countless hours shooting baskets in front of the garage, lying on the couch listening to music through stereo headphones, or rolling dice and keeping box scores playing Strat-O-Matic baseball.

I turn 53 this week and cannot help but wonder where the years have gone. “Lost time is never found again,” advised Benjamin Franklin. It is a reality I am powerless to overcome. There are times when life resembles a walk through a museum. Too often, I look around and move quickly to the next exhibit, failing to study and absorb the beauty and wisdom of the object before me. Have I by-passed the essence of my life, taking note only of what is immediately relevant? How much have I failed to absorb along the way? Our memories are like a picture book that allows us to re-examine, in the context of history, the layers of life that so quickly pass us by.

The other night I leafed through my high school yearbook of 1977, the year I graduated, left for college, and never looked back. As I flipped the pages and studied the faces of my past, as if momentarily traveling back in time, I re-lived the happiness, the humor, and the anxieties of my youth, which 35 years later continue to haunt me. More than three decades later, I remain uncertain of my place in life. As I look at the younger version of myself, a part of me continues to feel like that same, socially awkward, introverted teenage boy from the 1970’s. I have come so far, yet continue to feel that I could have been so much more. Have I really failed myself, or is it the confidence in myself that simply fails me?

“Life isn’t about finding yourself,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. “Life is about creating yourself.” There is the life we present to the world, the life of our imagination and expectations, and the life we lead. I have dreamed of accomplishing great things, of changing the world, while leading a life of integrity, intellect, and spiritual fulfillment; it is an imagined life of perfection. Perhaps I set the bar too high. Just like the seventeen year old high school senior who knew he could have done more with his young life, and the twenty-one year old college student, ambitious but undisciplined, lacking a guidepost and a solid notion of what life had in store, there remains a part of me unsatisfied and unfulfilled. Have I simply gone where the ride has taken me and failed to steer the ship? Like E.B. White, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

I don’t know why I am so hard on myself, why I cannot forgive myself for failing to achieve perfection. It is an impossible standard to meet, but one with which I have yet to come to terms. At 53, I still have much to accomplish, but I now understand there are limits to what can be achieved in life. Like Professor Liming in his later years, I am less ambitious these days. I refuse to sacrifice the occasional quiet moment, long solitary walks in the park, baseball on summer afternoons, a good book, time to write and reflect; I value too much the precious time with my kids, my family, and Andrea. “Any fool can make things bigger [and] more complex,” said Albert Einstein. “It takes a touch of genius-- and a lot of courage-- to move in the opposite direction." Only time will tell if I can forgive my shortcomings.

Perhaps I am simply caught up in the emotions of a father who sees his two children growing up, one about to graduate from college and become wholly independent of me, the other preparing to leave home, attend college and start afresh her life’s journey. It makes my heart burst with pride and hurt with anguish all at once. Such is the life of a parent. And yet, it is when I reflect on my children that I am most content with my station in life, for the focus is no longer on me, but my legacy. If my world were to end tomorrow, I need only look back on my experience as a father, on the pleasure, humor, and excitement of watching young minds develop and characters formed, to know that it was all worthwhile. Whatever sadness my life has experienced – and I have been luckier than most in this respect – and whatever regrets about my choices and outcomes, I know that I am blessed, that life has been easier for me than for most. The small joys, the little pleasures, these will have been enough.

“In the long run,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, “we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility." Life is a journey and a puzzle. Happiness is elusive for no good reason. It is why I write, and walk, and think. I will always be a work in progress. And for this, I am forever grateful.

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