by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World
When I was 20, I fought desperately against my future. I refused to become an adult until I understood why I should. Looking back years later, I see my rebellion against the future was a big mistake that caused me and my parents much suffering. I eventually made it through that period, having learned many lessons. The one I treasure most is that my impression of the future profoundly affects my energy in the present. As a result, I have cultivated a habit of optimism, always looking for the good that is coming my way.
That optimism is being put to the test, now that I’m sixty, and I’m looking down the line at what looks like the downward slide at the end of my journey. To maintain my enthusiasm today, I need a more positive image of where I’m going, but it looks so uninviting. Fortunately, over the years, I have amassed an enormous amount of life experience. So to find out more about how to improve my fantasy of the future, I go back to the beginning and learn how my impressions of the future shaped my life.
What I thought the future would be like
As a child, I watched nice families like Ozzie and Harriet on television. The kids had adventures and learned lessons, while the parents stood by to guide them. As near as I could tell, once you grew up the party was over. By the time I was ready to become an adult, I believed life’s journey would look like this: Grow up, get a job, raise a family, grow old and die. After growing up, the rest looked flat, boring, and uninviting.
Heaven and hell didn’t help
The ideas of Judaism that I learned in my own home, and Christianity that I gleaned in the broader culture confirmed my worst fears. According to some renditions, after death, I could go nowhere, or to heaven or hell. In any of these options, my soul would continue without further challenge until the end of time.
Secular learning didn’t improve my view of the future
I thought surely, within the vast universe of knowledge, there must be some compelling reason for living. So I poured myself into a broad search of science, math, history, politics, and philosophy. I found many interesting perspectives in each of these fields, but they gave me no path to work towards, nor any reason to strive in the human drama. In fact, nihilism injected darkness into my heart that poisoned my momentum even more.
Unable to find an impression of the future that appealed to me, and feeling disconnected from society I began to unravel. Protests against the world turned inward against myself and against life. I stopped eating. I was barely able to move, work, or socialize.
Eastern views added nuances to the future
My confusion about the future was tearing me apart. Thanks to a variety of compromises and insights, inch by inch, I came back to life. One perspective that motivated me was the Eastern philosophy that after each death, there would be another birth, with more challenges, opportunities, hopes, and dreams.
This chart seemed infinitely richer than the one I previously visualized. I loved the idea that even when I can’t see immediate results, my actions today will cause repercussions tomorrow. These beliefs helped me dispel despair, and expanded my vision beyond the tiny fraction of life in front of me. But it left many questions about how to make the most of my time on earth.
Instead of seeking absolute meaning I began to connect with people
As I regained momentum, got a job, and formed relationships, I realized that my zealous pursuit of Knowledge had blinded me to the people in my life. Once I loosened my obsessive grip on ideas, I became aware of the enormous satisfaction I felt with my friends, family, coworkers, and community. Social connections made me feel more balanced and more at peace with myself and the world.
My life path was not so boring as I had anticipated
By the time I was 35, I had achieved a stable lifestyle, with a job, a committed relationship, and day-to-day comfort and purpose. This stability, which I had fought so hard against when I was younger, became a blessed victory. While the future still looked flat, those first 35 years were far more complex than I had originally expected. I had made false starts, was distracted by illusions, addictions, and dreams that just didn’t work out. With diligence and assistance, I reached upward, out of these valleys and fulfilled my potential.
When I was 50, I returned to Villanova University for a Master’s degree in counseling psychology. My education loaded me with insights into how to help people grow, and my understanding of the human condition became deeper. It occurred to me that the journey of adulthood had now turned upwards, and that by striving, I was not only helping other people grow. I was continuing to grow, myself. This added another feature to my increasingly interesting chart.
What draws me to the next step?
Now I’m sixty, an age traditionally associated with the end of adult responsibilities, and I fear the downhill slide. And so, my enthusiasm is undermined by my old bugaboo: fear of the future. I am tempted to follow poet Dylan Thomas’ urging to rage against the dying of the light. But that risks repeating the mistake of my youth, angrily fighting with the future rather than embracing it.
How telling the story of my life exposes wisdom about my path
A few years ago, I began to write a memoir. On the surface, such a goal may seem to be a frill, a bauble, a celebration of the past. But the more I search for the organizing principle that will make my life worth telling, the more wisdom I discover in the act of storytelling.
I discovered there are two sides to every story, the inside and the outside. Looking from the outside, I see homes, families, and cars. People go to work, vacation, or the movies. But at the heart of the story, there is a character whose desires drive the story forward, while the obstacles help the character grow. At first, the inner story seems invisible to an outside observer, in fact it propels the story forward and keeps it interesting.
Focus on the inner story expands my vision of the future
Inside my character, I feel curiosity and energy. I am compassionate and want to serve others. I notice this tendency in other people, watching many people, including my parents, develop along these lines into their seventies, eighties, and beyond.
My grandmother often claimed she felt young. I never understood how this was possible considering her slower walk and older skin. Now I am experiencing this strange phenomenon myself. I look in people’s eyes and see a glimpse of something timeless in them too. As I chart my life, I realize it is the inner story that continues to grow.
The inner story continues to grow at any age
To find a wellspring of energy today, I consider the shape of my story over the last sixty years. Through the years, I kept thinking the future might be boring, and year after year, I was proven wrong. The character in my story continued to evolve, to gain insights, to become more nuanced. Then I look at other people, at the whole person, their eyes, their hopes, and I read or listen to their stories. By focusing on the inner story, I see them grow. My understanding of the inner story has expanded my vision of the future.
Extending my optimism towards infinity
I have heard many beliefs about what happens after death, from a welcome by angels, to reunions with family, the wise guides who will lead me farther, and even a coaching session to prepare for the next birth. I don’t know which of these ideas are true. But that’s okay. With each passing year, I watch my inner story growing, and with just a well-practiced slip of my optimistic pencil, I can let my chart of the future extend upward, right off the edge of the paper. This visualization of the future gives me the basis for an invigorating, hopeful, and more satisfying life today.