Last week I made a purchase at the supermarket: A bottle of wine and a bit of coffee. Staples, you know. At check out I was asked to show my identification. It made me proud. I was still relishing my youthful looks when the cashier announced the total of my purchase: $19.89.
“1989,” the cashier said out loud, “A terrible year.” I took the bait: “What was so bad about 1989?” He answered with a chuckle, “Oh that was the year I was born.” Any happy thoughts I had about looking young vanished immediately. My smile long gone, I said, “1989 wasn’t so bad. That was the year I graduated from high school.” The young cashier responded, and I quote: “Dude! You are like a lifetime ahead of me.” So much for feeling young.
Is twenty years really a lifetime? No, it’s not the 77.7 years of averageUSlife expectancy, but when you are young it is a long time. Twenty years is time enough to complete your primary, secondary, and advanced education. It is enough time to raise your children. In twenty years you can make, lose, and remake a number of fortunes. Over two decades you can get married, divorced, married, divorced, and married again. In twenty years you can make your name in a career you love (or at least figure out you want to do something else). But when you get older, twenty years isn’t so long. You look over your shoulder and see your children driving away when they were just filling their Pampers the day before. The relationship that you promised yourself you would extract yourself from in a couple of years if it did not improve, quickly stretches into decades. The endless timeline of your life that you perceived as a teenager suddenly has a very real, even visible terminus.
Why does time seem to pass so quickly as you get older? My wife says it is because we get so busy with the routine and mundane that we fail to pay attention to our lives. She’s right. Most of us let our years slip by, like the biblical vapor – here for a little while and then gone – being generally passive, just letting life happen, rather than really living. Here is a smart little exercise from Frederick Buechner that might awaken some of us who aren’t as young as we once were, and might focus some who are still in the 18 to 24 age bracket. Write a letter to the person you hope to be in twenty years.
Talk about your life as it is now, what you like and dislike, but spend the bulk of your words talking about the future: Where you hope to be living; what you hope to be doing; the kind of life you hope to be leading; the depth of faith you hope to have. Describe the world as you understand it today, and describe the world you hope will be here in two decades – and where you fit into it. In short, write to that future person you haven’t yet met: You. When finished, seal the letter, put it away, and mark it to be opened decades from now. Better yet, put it in the hands of a friend or family member who will mail it to you at the appropriate time.
When you open that letter, years from now, you will discover some bad news: Life will not have turned out the way you planned. But there will be good news too: Life will not have turned out the way you planned. Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
That’s good counsel for both the old, young, and those in between.