Socrates is alleged to have said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Was he talking to the elite of ancient Greece? Or are his words still applicable to us, even though we are separated by thousands of years?
Bruce Feiler, in his most recent book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, would appear to agree wholeheartedly with Socrates’ idea that we benefit from examining our own lives. After interviewing 225 people who had experienced horrific and some more common life-altering events in their lives, Mr. Feiler states: “Life is the story you tell yourself.”
Feiler says that our life transitions, which he calls “life disrupters,” and for the very largest of these events, “lifequakes,” require us to rewrite our life story. I had one of these “lifequakes” myself; it was my heart attack on the eve of my 49th birthday. To compound the difficulty of this medical event, it also led to the subsequent loss of my first career.
I had to rewrite a story of a linear ascension from a Minnesota farm kid up through the ranks of the corporate world with career success. I was happily married with six daughters well on their way to adulthood. Now the earning side of my life and my identity were crumbling. I needed to rewrite my story to include a new meaning for my life. I rewrote my life story by accepting a call to prepare for and be ordained as a deacon in the Catholic Church.
I tell you this because I am putting myself entirely into Socrates’ camp. As we now hear the grinding repetition of the ‘new normal” and the speculation of our lives post-COVID-19 as a part of this life disruption we are in, I think it is time to again “examine my life.” I wish to write a new story for myself, rather than go back to the life I had before this pandemic. If our stories are what we tell ourselves, we have choices on how we come out of this pandemic. We can make our own “new normal.”
We can rewrite our life story or do some “shape-shifting,” as Bruce Feiler calls it. My story would change in two particular ways. First, I would take the break I have had from many of my church ministries and family gatherings to use this “found time” to continue to focus on actually writing my life stories, not just for our grandchildren, but for myself. Second, I would lessen my inclination in life to focus on “doing” and take concrete steps toward “being.” I feel a need to reorient my life story, to de-emphasize much of the “doing” part of my life that led to financial success in my earning career. It was a “doing” life that also gave me success, personal satisfaction, and happiness in my post-heart attack life of service.
Now, as a 75-year-old, I understand that statistically, these could be my last ten years of a healthy and productive life. With my current lifestyle of isolation, breaking the habits of “doing” will not be as difficult. Now is the time to say “no” to much of the “doing” of my life, like the teaching of evening classes. I have come to value regular time after dinner with Diane, my wife. I relish my prayerful thirty to sixty-minute walks each evening.
My quest is to become a more contemplative person. Maybe now is the time to call myself, for the first time, a senior. Not a rocking chair or golfing/fishing senior, but perhaps a mature person of greater depth – greater wisdom. Now is the time to include a daily ninety-minute block of time for writing and another equal block of time for in-depth reading, maybe even to read some non-fiction.
Major transitions require a ritual. I don’t see myself getting a tattoo on my bicep like the Navy sailor on his first leave. Throwing a party during lockdown probably is not the best route, either.
Maybe I already marked my transition by calling myself a senior and a contemplative. “Life is the story you tell yourself,” and, possibly, my new life story will include Thomas Merton, the monk, and Socrates, the ancient philosopher, as my mentors.
Vern Schmitz is a farm kid from Minnesota. In 1993, a heart attack and subsequent opportunity from his employer to down-size, allowed him to transition from an earning career to one of serving. With a calling to serve as a deacon in the Catholic Church, he prepared for his serving career with a Master of Divinity and was ordained in 1999. He and his wife, Diane, now winter in Florida with many visits from their six daughters, four sons-in-law, and nine grandchildren. He serves as a deacon at St. Anne’s, Ruskin, FL and Holy Spirit, St. Cloud, MN. This post grew out of his experience in an OLLI Imaginative Writing Class