I used to kind of pride myself on being cynical. Nobody was going to convince me to be happy over some small or silly thing. I knew that life was harder than that, and I held tight to my own (usually self-created) misery. If someone said that it was a nice day outside, I started looking for clouds in the distance. If a difficult situation had worked out easier than anyone had expected, I chalked it up to dumb luck, certainly not to the fact that things often really do just turn out well. When I woke up in the morning, I would mentally scan my internal and external surroundings, looking for the way that I was sure everything was going to fall apart. This may sound like an exaggeration, and to a tiny degree it probably is. But, my early training taught me to expect the worst so that I would be pleasantly surprised if things actually resulted in my favor.
We grow and learn while we struggle and rejoice—it’s all just human development.
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I was presented with every opportunity to change my view of the world—everything from free love to smoking pot to transcendental meditation to therapy to simple gratitude, and many other concepts and movements I was too skeptical to grab onto at first. Even the idea of just being hopeful about what might occur next left me sneering. Gratitude for what I did have seemed dopey when I was in my 20s, 30s and 40s. I felt like I was working hard in my life and whatever I had was a result of that. But I think now that I was so ensconced in my own privilege and entitlement, I didn’t realize how precious every moment really was.
I’m not sure if it’s that I’m aging, or that my emotional vision is so much clearer than it used to be, but I find myself softening. I realize I no longer need a totally unhindered view of the horizon to appreciate that little hummingbird that returns several times a day to the feeder outside my office window. And I don’t need that moment of fluttering wings to fix everything in my life. I can just enjoy it right then for what it is. Believe me, this wasn’t always the case. When I experienced disappointments about relationships or jobs when I was younger, I wasn’t good at brushing myself off and realizing how the downs were as much a part of my development as the ups. I had a “Leave it to Beaver”-induced picture of the world and, since mine didn’t match that, I figured I was doomed to be annoyed and resentful at best.
Of course, nothing in my life turned out like I imagined it would—either good or bad. It has taken the perspective of age to realize that this is what life is about. We grow and learn while we struggle and rejoice—it’s all just human development. Maybe it’s that understanding that has given me the greatest gift of being in my 70s. More than ever before, I feel grateful—easily, naturally, happily. I find myself stopping to watch baby goslings on the canal when I’m running, or laughing hard at something someone texts me out of the blue. Seeing the way the yellow-orange light rises in the morning sky can practically bring me to tears now, as if I’d never seen it before.
Part of me thinks that this, too, is just a piece of our development. Maybe if we’re too grateful too early we would get lazy, but I doubt it. I think lots of us were scared and wounded as kids and it makes us nervous to let down our guards. If we relax, we think someone could hurt us again. But whatever the reason for this shift in my perspective, I’ll take it. If I’m busy and the dogs want to play or go outside, I feel so much happier than I once did to stop and just appreciate this moment. This is real life, I think—much more important than whatever dramas I can devise in my worries, and much sweeter than anything I ever let myself dream.