Sure, birthdays come and go, and some people get excited and some people just, well, just roll along and thank the good folks who send cards and then get on with their lives. And in other places there is even less observance of birthdays, a finding that surprises me in Kenya. Apparently as a relatively new country, and with a long tradition of basic life styles and not much discretionary money, birthdays – especially among the folks who are not very well off – are pretty much ignored. It made me sad to see some of my friends not celebrating their children’s (or their own) birthdays until it was explained to me: there are so many other places to put one’s limited resources, So birthdays just don’t get much observed.
Not so us Westerners, right? And while I’ve tried to be pretty reasonable about most birthdays, these big 10-year events call for special attention. Many readers of these notes were with me on this date (or this week, for we pulled out all the stops, in many different locales!) ten years ago, when we celebrated Mr. Guy’s Big-6-0, and it was quite a blow-out (and it took weeks to recover!).
And here I am again, ten years later and delighted today to do reverse birthday greetings all over again. What better time than one’s 70th to reflect, to share a little of one’s joy with one’s life, and to anticipate what’s coming yet with enthusiasm and – not to put too fine a point on it – a big dose of optimism.
“Optimism?” you say. “Come on, Mr. Guy. With the world in the state it’s in, how can we be optimistic?”
I’ll respond by saying yes. I really do mean “optimism.” I’m aware of all the things that worry us, at all levels of society and in all locals and cultures but you know what? We’ve been dealing with those same types of supposedly “life-threatening” and “dangerous” threats for centuries and we’ve always come through. For me, I prefer to focus on what’s good about our lives, what’s good about society, and on what we are accomplishing. Has there ever before been a time when people – as individuals – had the opportunity to develop and build their individual strengths, when they could develop their own individual potential as people? No society before today’s has ever had that strength.
And then we think about what’s coming, all that’s available and on offer, to us as consumers and as learners? We have opportunities that could not even have been dreamed of in other times. Of course there are huge issues in poverty, health care, homelessness, food supplies, water supplies. Of course we have those problems, but we also are living in a time when, as a global society, we’re aware of what needs to be done and we are trying to do it. Sometimes it is just a step at a time – sometimes even “baby steps,” but at least we live in a time when we know what to do and we’re trying to do it.
So of course I’m optimistic.
I’m also very comfortable about where we are as a people and as a society because I’ve been very fortunate to find myself aligned with friends, people, colleagues, family and other loved ones who are very comfortable within themselves. That’s what my long-gone English friend Kathleen Brooks used to say, no matter how bleak a prospect might be. When asked how she was doing, she would just smile and say, “Thank you for asking. I’m well in myself, thank you.” We are so lucky to live in a society where so many of us – regardless of the pressures and the troubles – turn out to be well in ourselves, comfortable in ourselves, and we can, in fact, turn to ourselves for much of the strength we need. As a people, we are very lucky that way.
So it’s a fine time to be turning seventy and I’m happy to have the opportunity to share some of these thoughts with readers of these posts. At the same time though, as I review the above remarks, I’m reminded that I must be careful not to get too preachy or too philosophical about being seventy. In a way, though, it’s hard not to, when you’re as much of an optimist and lover of life as I am. But I’ll slow down, and I’ll try to keep as even keel (is that the expression?) as we move through the week.
And whatever happens, I doubt, at the big party on Friday, that I’ll be quite as remarkable as Mark Twain was at his seventieth, when he was feted at “a lavish affair” at Delmonico’s. “The seventieth birthday!” he said. “It is a time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity; when you may throw aside the decent reserves which have oppressed you for a generation and stand unafraid and unabashed upon your seven-terraced summit and look down and teach – unrebuked. You can tell the world how you got there. It is what they all do. You shall never get tired of telling by what delicate arts and deep moralities you climbed up to that great place. You will explain the process and dwell on the particulars with senile rapture. I have been anxious to explain my own system this long time, and now at last I have the right.”
OK, Mark Twain. I might “have the right” but I promise, I’m not going to be a crashing boor about it. I’ll keep on being optimistic and anticipating the great future we’ve all got in front of us and as I stand on that seven-terraced summit, with my new and awful dignity, I’ll try to be careful about telling the world how I got there. Sure, when there’s the opportunity for Mr. Guy to “expound” a little, using his own experience and telling stories from those seven decades, of course I’ll rise to the occasion and let people hear my “version” of whatever it is that’s being discussed. But I will be promise to try to do it only when asked, and I’ll be careful to NOT do it when it isn’t appropriate.
So it all comes back to all that individualism, doesn’t it? We have the right – the opportunity – to make our own choices. We are so lucky.
And as for what the next decades will bring? I plan to keep enjoying life, keep loving my many, many friends, enjoying their company (and hoping they’re enjoying mine). And I’ll probably keep doing something professional, since I’m a great Drucker advocate and the one piece of advice of his which I’ve followed avidly (and which I’ve never been able to authenticate but I heard somewhere that it was his, and I believe it – and in him – so strongly that I choose to believe Mr. Drucker said it). When asked about how to have a good working life, Peter Drucker is alleged to have said something like, “Two things to remember: continually re-invent yourself, and never retire.”
Better advice was never given. The re-inventing seems to have happened throughout my life, even without my having much to do with it it seems, and as for the prospect of retirement? Not likely.
So how to wrap this up (doing it now so I don’t have to make a speech on Friday – but I’ll probably have a few comments to make anyway)?
I like to think this particular decadal observance is simply entering one’s eighth decade, nothing more. But since a lot of folks are kind of put off by that particularly construction, so I’ll just sign off with a birthday wish to all my wonderful friends, acquaintances, professional colleagues, and, well, just about anyone else who happens to cross my path (or reads these comments):
Thank you for all you do for me, for your families and friends, for the strengths and successes of our larger society, and may the next ten years be as fruitful and as happy as the last seventy have been. As a society (global and local) and as a people we’ve come so far. We are so blessed and so fortunate. Let’s keep it going.