Life Gets Better

The unexpected pleasures of growing older.

Dispensing with the Trivial

Focusing on what really matters is a skill that gets easier as we get older.

Imagine being able to rise above an immediate frustration, to relegate it to a pile of trivial concerns and feel much less bothered. We are constantly assailed with pettiness – tasks, errands, irritants, minor disputes and ordinary mishaps – and so being able to call up a larger, overriding perspective is surely a key to living well. How do we acquire and hone this capacity?

Recently, the starter motor on my furnace went out. Of course, this meant a morning stuck at home waiting for the furnace man. I forced myself to stop railing against this inconvenience by picturing the people living in ramshackle huts in the slums of Nairobi. I invoked the privilege it is to have a house with a furnace that needed tending. I made the necessary arrangements and ended up enjoying some quiet time at home.

The capacity to recognize pettiness and throw it off develops as we get older and can be summoned more readily.  I am nearing sixty. There have been other furnaces with their problems, other disrupted mornings, flat tires on the way to important destinations, minor snubs and hurts from people in my life, now barely remembered. These things truly don’t matter in the long run, and eventually we live long enough to be cognizant of the many varieties of insignificance that afflict our daily lives. Getting caught up in them seems increasingly like a waste of precious energy.

This kind of immediate reckoning, slapping oneself in the face to look up and see the larger view, must be done deliberately. Even in the sixth decade it is not automatic. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk, teaches a practice in which a traffic light turning red is welcomed as an opportunity for aliveness, not cursed as a thwarting.  Indeed, the impulse to hurry has been halted by the stoplight. The dogged focus on the road ahead has ceased, and in its place we can choose to turn our gaze to the clouds in the sky, savor music from the radio, or open the window for a gust of fresh air. We can magnify our awareness of still being able to see and hear and breathe.

cloud

Nothing alerts us more to the necessity of such cherishing than a medical scare. A woman in her mid-forties had been intimidated for years by a co-worker who made her workplace atmosphere negative and tense. Then a diagnosis of breast cancer sent her into the realm of fighting for her life. After a six-month leave for treatment, she returned to work with a radically altered set of priorities. She was no longer willing to tolerate this co-worker’s domination, even if it meant giving up the lucrative position she had held for over twenty years.

Trade-offs like these are not simple. Having to depend solely on her husband’s income, at least for a while, was going to be difficult, and she knew that the effects on her career trajectory could be severe. But the long hours of watching the chemo dripping into her IV had convinced her that the most important change she could make in her life was to start paying attention to the amount of stress she was taking into her body, day in and day out. She had a candid conversation with her boss, with the result that he fired her co-worker and adjusted her job description to support the best use of her skills.

The outcome of the conversation with her boss certainly could have gone another way, but not her clarity of perception. Her perspective had shifted. Every interaction, each day-to-day choice, is affected by such a heightened awareness of what is paramount in life. We can ask this of ourselves when we wake up in the morning, even without the deep fright of cancer.  A here-and-now focus naturally connects us with our transience and thus is a call to aliveness.

As soon as I am grateful for continuing to see and hear and breathe, I am ready for the mishaps that will come my way.  Whether it is a traffic light or a fruitless meeting at work, I can change my consciousness of what is going on.  Breathe in, breathe out. It is extraordinary to free oneself from the shackles of pettiness.

 

Adapted from: LIFE GETS BETTER: THE UNEXPECTED PLEASURES OF GROWING OLDER, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.

 

Wendy Lustbader, M.S.W., is an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work.

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