At an 80th birthday party recently, we asked the birthday girl how she felt about being 80.
She took a moment, then offered, “I feel like I’ve accomplished what I came into this life to do and, mistakes and all, I’ve done the best I have known how to do ... I’m grateful for whatever time I have left to be with people I love and to enjoy the beauty of the world. Life truly is a gift, and now that most of the busyness is over, I’m more in awe of it than ever.”
This made me really think. How many of us have accomplished what we came here to do? How many of us know what that is, or have even thought about this? How many of us feel satisfied with our lives?
Perhaps we’ve done something really outstanding and can easily identify with that achievement. Doing something meaningful in a productive capacity contributes to our feeling of life satisfaction. But, is this the reason for our life? Or, like most of us, perhaps it’s not so much a specific achievement, but a sense or feeling of a life well-lived. This may include raising a family, loving people, doing a job well, helping others, beautifying the earth or some small space, creating art, excelling at athletics or having some spiritual connection.
All the philosophers have something to say about this. Erik Erikson believed that by this time in our lives, we either feel integrity with how we’ve lived our lives or despair about it. We are asking the questions: “Does my life count?” and, “Is it OK to have been me?”
Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs says that by now we have either reached our full potential and realize it, or not. In the highest level of self-transcendence, self-actualization is only found in some higher goal outside oneself, “... behaving and relating as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” Whew!
Similarly, there is Bill Plotkin, my local guru who has written extensively about these stages of development. His soul-centric theory identifies the end of our lives as time to move from our egos to wholeness with the larger more-than-human community. And then, into grace and spirit and finally into death.
I think all of these stages from the great thinkers build on each other. If we have gone through the earlier stages in our lives well, then it is natural to move into these later periods of satisfaction and even joy about our lives, as my friend at her birthday party expressed.
Studies on life satisfaction measure areas of relating to others, self-concept, self-perceived ability to cope with daily life, economic standing, education, life experiences, residence, our attitudes on life as a whole, and intelligence and wisdom as we age.
I’m thinking more about if I’ve loved my life. Have I given anything back? Have I raised good and decent kids? Have I been there for others when they’ve needed me? How have I hurt others and the earth? Is there anything I can do before I die that needs to be done? Did my life matter?
At my 80th, I hope to be as content with myself as my friend is.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.