09/19/2013 04:34 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Staying on the Bus

The bus is a pretty powerful metaphor for my generation. In 1954, Rosa Parks' refusal to ride in the back of one was a turning point in the civil rights movement. The 1964 cross-country odyssey of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in a school bus named Further was equally iconic.

Kesey really threw down the gauntlet: You're either on the bus or you're off the bus. Like any analogy, if you examine this one too closely, it can collapse under its own weight... or invite so many exceptions they disprove the rule. Still, when I describe someone by saying, "It's like, when he got married, he got off the bus," or, "as soon as she became an investment banker, she got off the bus," most of my contemporaries know exactly what I mean.

The signs are easy to spot: Predictable responses to every situation. Opinions so fixed they've become gospel. The insidious phrase, "When I was your age..." Rest assured, none of these behaviors mean you're condemned to a life full of sound and fury signifying nothing. We all have to get off the bus once in a while. Settle in at various places long enough to take care of the important business of being human. Although you may want to be prepared to trade in your Lexus or Learjet, if necessary, when the time comes.

As many of us struggle to transcend the stereotypes of the 60s, in both senses of the phrase, we're being encouraged -- in the language of The Third Metric -- "to redefine success beyond money and power" so that it includes "well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and our ability to make a difference in the world."

But, even if you manage to achieve that particular reinvention, it doesn't guarantee you're still on the bus. Or will stay on it. Perhaps because any fixed definition of the word "success" can be limiting.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a guy who struggled to hang onto the bus by his linguistic fingertips, defined success as that which "inly [sic] rejoices me, and the heart appoints." Yet, many of the powerful moments along the way take place when you're "inly" despairing...when you feel that circumstances and/or brain chemistry have actually thrown you under the bus instead of on it. (I should know: I traveled the country in an aging VW van during just such a period.)

Even people who have achieved enlightenment -- or to put it in contemporary terms, learned to "live in the now" -- may have been left in the dust years ago. Especially if, as they read this, they smile koanically and think, "There is no bus."

One unsettling thing about aging is the subtle fear that the bus has left you behind. Or that you're lugging around so much baggage you won't be able to get back on at the next stop. That instead of heading towards the light -- transcendent or otherwise -- your so-called "golden years" are in the rear-view mirror.

I don't particularly care about aging gracefully. But I do care about staying on the bus. I may not be able to define that. But I can feel it. And I don't think I'm alone.

Fortunately, Kesey's next line offers more than a little hope: "If you're on the bus, and you get left behind, then you'll find it again."


For more on emotional wellness, click here.

For more by David Blistein, click here.