Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Making the Most of Milestones

How we experience milestones depends on how we've lived our lives

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I remember thinking when I turned thirty not only that it wasn't so bad, but that it was actually pretty great. I felt I'd come to the end of the beginning of my life, had lived it vigorously, honestly, and meaningfully, and as a result was well-prepared to launch forward into the middle of it. I'd spent most of my life training to be a a physician, had a number of close friends, had maintained good relationships with my family, and was looking forward to starting one of my own. I felt I was coming into the height of my power and most importantly that I was gradually but steadily growing wiser. I felt, in short, that the journey, though far from easy, had been thus far truly wonderful.

When I turned forty, I felt largely the same way. I'd married, had progressed in my career, and was enjoying most aspects of the life I'd spent the previous forty years constructing. I felt my work was contributive and therefore that my life was meaningful, and even when I grew seriously ill (as I described in a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death), I was eventually able to work through the resultant complications and turn poison into medicine.

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Certainly there were losses along the way. As we age in general we often find ourselves pausing to mourn the passing of our youth as specific losses draw our attention to it: an unremembered name or a reduced ability to bounce back from illness or injury. But we also have much to celebrate gaining: experience, confidence, capability, and an improved lifestyle. Aging, as a brief moment's reflection makes obvious, is a decidedly mixed bag.

Which means our experience of it and of passing its milestones can be, like everything, either good or bad. Yet it seems to me that what determines which it will be is the degree to which we feel we're living our lives well and with purpose. It was because I felt I'd done both that turning thirty and forty felt like accomplishments rather than disappointments—like turning points rather than dead ends, each a satisfying conclusion of one phase of life and the exciting beginning of another. Certainly at each I had a list of things I'd not yet accomplished, but because I was living my life in a meaningful way, I never regretted not yet having done them; rather, I looked forward to doing them in the future.

In general, I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions, to reflect on the year gone by, or to plan what I want to accomplish in the year ahead, the simple reason being I do those things every day. Living with purpose has become my best defense against existential angst. It's also, I've discovered, a good defense against regret (which I wrote about in detail in a previous post, The Faulty Premise Of Regret)—for things left undone simply become opportunities sacrificed for other opportunities more in line with my life's purpose, and mistakes made simply lessons that turned me into who I am today.

My point, then, is simply this: milestones happen whether we want them to or not. How we experience them, though, is entirely up to us. We're most likely to experience them joyfully if we live our lives in a way that turns them into markers of our success rather than our failure (even if we've recently failed in some way when they arrive, if we've lived with the confidence never to be defeated, all failures are temporary and won't obscure the successes of the past). If we're clever, then, we can leverage our knowledge of milestones yet to come to motivate us to live in a way that enables us to reach them without regret.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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