People have asked me on countless occasions how it is that a 62-year-old guy with two grown children in their 30s, can be a father for the third time. I've heard, "Must have been an accident," more times than I care to remember. My typical reply is that Noah, my 5-year-old son, was not an accident, but a deliberate attempt on my part to create a grandchild. That usually gets a laugh and leads to a conversation centered on the question, "So how is it being a father again at your age?" Simply, it's the best.
My first son was born just after my 27th birthday. The 20s, according to author Gail Sheehy in her book Passages, is a time when our focus shifts from the inner turmoil of adolescence to a preoccupation with self and future. "How do I put my aspirations into effect?" "What is the best way to start?" "Where do I go and how do I get there?" Sheehy emphasizes that the prevalent theme of our 20s is "doing what we should," as dictated by family, culture, and peers. Stated more simply, begin living as adults. In my case that meant getting a "respectable" job, getting married, beginning a family, attending graduate school, teaching one or two nights at a local state university, owning a home with a two-car garage, and fulfilling my interpretation of what it means to be a success.
In looking back at my late 20s through my early 40s, I spent more time taking care of other people's children than I did my own. Not because I didn't love my two boys, but because of my obsession with proving to myself and others that I, a person who grew up with significant learning and behavioral challenges, was a competent, intelligent, successful human being. As a result, I found myself practically living at my school, working extremely long hours. While I was so consumed with my "statement of competence and success," I overlooked the fact that my two beautiful sons were growing up and I was missing out on many important early childhood milestones or failing to recognize the significance of what I was missing.
Sheehy speaks of a time when we achieve a highly refined dimension of growth that is only possible and appropriate after we profit from years of life experience. I'm reminded of the concept of existential moment, that time in our life when we accept for the first time our own mortality, and in doing so, are free to appreciate life without being burdened by our perceived expectations of others. It is a time when we know who we are, accept who we are, and enjoy who we are. The psychologist Jung called this individuation, while Maslow called it self-actualization. I think of this time as the last leg of a journey.
As I look at myself today, I see a man with different priorities than I had as a young parent. The things that I once thought mattered, no longer matter to me, as my materialistic desires seem to have faded away... except that I want the best, state-of-the-art golf clubs. My priorities have changed significantly.
Today, I'm able to look at Noah and just appreciate him without needing to constantly define him, judge him, or critique him. I can enjoy him for who he is with no strings attached. I am able to be fully present in his life, without being distracted by my own selfish preoccupation with the acquisition of material possessions, status, and reputation. These things that mattered so much when I was younger, simply no longer do. I recognize that by the time Noah is a senior in high school, I will be nearly 75, and with that recognition comes responsibility.
I want to make certain that Noah will always be able to say that his dad loved him and supported him unconditionally. I hope to do this by making myself available to him and making him a priority above and beyond my professional obligations. I hope to model for him the values that I believe matter most: kindness, altruism, compassion, honesty, and integrity.
Recently I heard an anonymous poem called "Live a Life That Matters." The poem begins,
Ready or not, someday it will all come to an end.
Your wealth, fame and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
So, knowing that I'm in the last leg of the journey and that sunrises and sunsets I have left to enjoy are fewer, I'm much more inclined to ask myself what really does matter? In paraphrasing from the poem; what will matter will be not what I got, but what I gave. What will matter will not be my success, but my significance. What matters is not what I learned, but what I taught. What matters is that I lived with integrity, compassion, and generosity to enrich, empower, and encourage others. What matters is what kind of father Noah and his older brothers will describe me as and that those whom I love will feel a lasting loss, in my absence.
I've learned that living a life that matters doesn't happen by accident, it's not a matter of circumstances, but of choice. For me, living a life that matters is being 62-years-old, with a 5-year-old son who I hope one day will reflect upon his dad as someone who lived a life that mattered.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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