When you’re a kid, life seems to stretch out forever ahead of you. Waiting until Christmas is all you know of eternity. The idea of being old enough to live on your own is incomprehensible. As for older people who are in their declining years, they might as well be from another planet. You can’t imagine what they’ve seen and heard and felt and experienced.
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Youth is wasted on the young,” and he was right. When we have youth, we’re not experienced enough or mature enough to appreciate it, but as we gain experience and maturity, we lose the youth which would allow us to make better decisions and spend our time in ways that would lead to wiser outcomes.
When I was 20, I thought I was pretty smart and pretty wise. By the time I hit 30, I was wise enough to know how ignorant I’d been at 20, but I was arrogant enough to believe I’d learned enough by then.
The only thing I understand now is that age and wisdom can be proportional. It isn’t always true, it’s possible. I’ve known some people who become adults and quit learning and growing. I’ve said for years that most people I know hit the age of 30 and then just get numb and get involved with the pragmatic part of life — and quit changing. Over the next 30 years, they don’t get 30 years of experience. They get one year of experience 30 times.
One of the most difficult parts of gaining wisdom is accepting that an end is coming, but asking yourself to be serious and truthful about what you want to do with the time before you die. When you’re a kid, you want to be a football star or a famous actress or president. Your plans are outrageous, but you have no understanding of why they’re not going to come true.
Part of that is that you’re just not old enough to understand what’s important. And the later you wait to gain wisdom about what’s important — not just some pat answer given by society or a teacher or theologian or whoever — the sooner you can be clear about who you really are and what you’re really aiming for.
Candy Chang was discouraged when her New Orleans neighborhood was falling apart and then she lost someone in her life who she loved very much. She wanted to know what was important to other people, so she asked. She went to an abandoned house in her neighborhood and turned it into a giant chalkboard. She just stenciled, “Before I die I want to…” and left lots of spaces for people to write.
By the next day, the wall was filled with people’s goals. The project kept growing and it’s now been replicated in cities all around the world.
It’s a deceptively simple question. What do you want to do before you die? Do you want to play in the NFL or NBA? If so, you’re probably about 12. Do you want to make millions of dollars? If so, you’re probably young enough that you don’t understand what’s important. Maybe. Or maybe you have something worthwhile the money’s going to be used for. If you’re mature enough and wise enough, your desires are going to seem small to younger and more immature people, because they won’t sound big and grand enough.
I have a few things, but I’m not sure how impressed I would have been with my list when I was 20:
— I want to be married to a woman I love and know that the time I spent waiting for her was worth it.
— I want to have children who I’m proud of, not because they’re just like me, but because they’ve been allowed to be the best “them” they can be.
— I want to make at least one movie that gets distribution in actual theaters, as opposed to just showing at a few obscure film festivals.
— I want to know that the people I allow into my life feel loved and understood — and I want to be selective enough in who those people are that maybe they’ll love and understand me.
I could go on with a long list, but these are the sort of things I think about at this point. They’re things that can happen, but they’ll only happen if I take the steps to make them happen. And that’s the most valuable part of an exercise such as this. If you think about what you want — and you think about the time you might have left — it leaves you with a sense of urgency about what needs to happen.
That’s the way it works for me, anyway.
What about you? What do you want to do before you die? Have you lived long enough that your list might start sounding mundane to other people — even if those “mundane” things will mean the world to you?