Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Milestones


Milestones mark the progress of a human life. Sometimes the milestone connotes the end or beginning of a chapter; other times, the milestone indicates a chapter division. Births, weddings, divorces, deaths, and major life changes are among the events and changes that often signify milestones.

Recently, I turned sixty. Birthdays that mark the end of a decade of life often have particular significance. Yet mine was far from traumatic. Having retired almost seven years ago, completing six decades of life did not signal the arrival or the approach of retirement. But it did prompt some pleasant reflections about the nature of life and meaning of happiness.

When I served on exchange with the Royal Navy in London for two years, people often said that Americans lived to work whereas they worked to live. I found that comment transformative. What do you want out of life? What do you want to contribute?

Economist Robert Sidelsky of the University of Warwick and philosopher Edward Sidelsky of the University of Exeter in How Much is Enough? contend that many people pursue the wrong goods, i.e., these people strive to attain things rather than to achieve a good life. The definition of the good life varies greatly from person to person. But, as I have repeatedly argued in this blog, more is not necessarily better. Jesus memorably illustrated this insight with his story of the affluent farmer who kept building new barns to store his ever-growing wealth, but who tragically died before enjoying that wealth.

The American economy is increasingly bifurcated into the haves and have-nots. The middle class, long America’s strength, shrinks with each passing year. The Skidelskys (father, the economist, and son, the philosopher) maintain that if the affluent could limit their desire for to accumulate wealth and things, they would benefit, as would the have-nots, because companies would then need to hire more people to perform the work that the highly driven, highly compensated now do. The Skidelskys correctly recognize that the problem is not a lack of talent but lack of economic opportunity.

Additionally, more expensive is not necessarily better. Money has a diminishing utility. Shoes are essential. Good shoes are functional and aesthetically pleasing. But good shoes do not have to cost thousands of dollars per pair. A pair priced at two thousand dollars (and I’ve seen lots of these in stores, especially in Paris) is unlikely to provide ten times as much satisfaction to the owner as a pair of two hundred dollar shoes. The same analysis applies to clothing, cars, houses, and most other purchases. The hidden cost of extravagantly expensive purchases is the ignored opportunity cost of time that could have been used in other ways.

With the passing years, I have noticed that my body is less capable and requires more recovery time. Thankfully, I do not suffer physical ailments but nonetheless experience the inexorable toll that time takes. The human body is an example of planned obsolescence. I am healthier and more fit than my parents were at this age but do recognize the onset of decline. Professional athletes generally retire before age forty because their bodies are less capable and require longer recovery times.

Planned obsolescence points to the inevitability of death and the importance of making the best of my remaining time, whether it is short or long. Steps to extend life (good diet, nutrition, exercise, sleep, preventive care, etc.) seem worthwhile, but are most effective when consistently practiced from an early age. I care for my body to live and to live well, rather than living to exercise, diet, etc. The body is a gift from God and, in Christian terms, the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the milestone of turning sixty prompted reflections about what I most cherish: relationships with those I love and who love me; my sense of self that emerges from my body, my self-awareness, and my linguistic capacity; my limited autonomy; and my creativity and aesthetic sense. In sum, these relationships express my spirit and connect me with others, self, and the world. Together, they point to my relationship with the One who is life itself.

What was your last milestone? What reflections, insights, or changes did it prompt?

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