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It’s not often that a young woman decides to chat me up in a coffee shop.
But that’s what happened a few days ago, a twentysomething blonde conversing earnestly with a stranger three times her own age. It was obvious she wanted something, but felt too uncomfortable to ask, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I had the feeling, as we parted company, that in some way, I had let her down.
Later, I figured it out. She’d been curious to know what I had learned about life, this old man, three score and ten. In an attempt to somehow make it up to her, I began writing a letter, hoping I could find some way to get it to her.
Dear Young Woman,
I realize now what you wanted: You want to know what life is about, and you sense that, from the far end of the road, I should be able to tell you something essential about the journey. I can, though I’m not sure you’ll want to hear it.
I think of the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the first line of one of his poems: “Telling lies to the young is wrong.” I don’t want to give you conventional truths, polite lies or what I think you want to hear: that life is good, follow your dreams, expect to be rewarded in the end. The platitudes you hear from parents, teachers and the like.
I’m not a person who can do that.
In fact, I’m not sure I want to tell you the truth. It wouldn’t prove useful to you. Yet, I feel under some obligation to share what I have learned, with the caveat that it is my reality, not yours. You’ll discover your own truth along the way.
To begin with, the essence of my journey has been finding the courage to move from illusion to reality. The wonderful dreams of my youth, of my adulthood, had to be tempered by what is possible in life – possible in my own life. It’s been a hard learning process that has made me more human, more humble, more humane. I thought I was capable of great things. I imagined I would create great beauty with my music, capture a special vision of life in my writing. I believed I would enter a world of truth and harmony when I joined a therapy commune. I expected that I would find unconditional love in my marriage.
And even before all that, I grew up within the sheltering arms of Christianity, believing there was a guardian angel who protected me, saints to whom I could pray for lost objects, special favours. I loved being one of the “chosen ones,” with the promise of eternal happiness in heaven after I died. These were some of the illusions that carried me forward on my path through life. And after they had done their work, drawing me along from stage to stage, each belief was shattered.
The same can be said of dreams. Dreams fulfilled, dreams destroyed; either way, it doesn’t matter. They take you out into life, after which their purpose has been served. You’re left with the challenge of dealing with who you really are.
The process for me was one of deflation – from a belief that I was a gifted, special, being loved by the Divine, to a simple human, limited in capacity, aware of my mortality, kin to all creatures who walk – and crawl – on this Earth.
And here I am, nearing the end of my lifespan. I ask myself if I would have been better off remaining within the protective world of my illusions. Just as a child doesn’t have a choice about remaining in the womb; however, I didn’t have the option, plus some questing side of me hungered for the truth, even though it wasn’t always what I wanted.
Yet, this isn’t the whole story. There is a boon given to those who are faithful to their path. With the collapse of every dream, the breaking of every illusion, I found myself becoming more vulnerable, more open. And out of this transformation came an awakening of what I believe is the most human of all virtues, compassion. Having suffered, been hurt, failed at so many attempts to gain “success,” I find myself able to reach out to others in a way I never thought possible – with compassion.
How to describe compassion? For me it is an awareness that others, too, share the regret of mistakes made, failures endured, loves lost. That’s what happens as we become human. Realizing that we all suffer helps us accept others we meet along the way. And perhaps that is why my life unfolded as it did.
But there is something more that makes age worth the struggle. Recently, I have found myself able to love.
Not the romantic love of youth, but one that can embrace all who share this planet. It’s a strange and wonderful phenomenon that seems to come unexpectedly to those of a certain age who have lived their lives honestly, doggedly. Some might call it cosmic love; others, Christ love.
Regardless, finding the truth about oneself, humankind and one’s place in the universe is an awesome discovery. And then to experience this ultimate gift of aging, this open heart, is a blessing of the highest order. So here I am, at the pinnacle of my life, looking back across the distance I’ve travelled, conscious of all the twists and turns and detours. To be able to reach out in love and embrace this world as it is – that is where life has taken me, and what for me it’s all about.
Austin Repath lives in Toronto.