After 50, it’s family, friends and work that count the most

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

I had just turned 16 when it happened.

I had a glossy, new driver’s license in my billfold.  I was driving my father’s new DeSoto down 9th Street in Lafayette, Indiana.  The car was packed with friends as we headed over to Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium to watch the Boilermakers in the season’s first Big 10 football game. I slowed for a stop sign, saw nothing from either the left or the right, so I gunned on through the intersection, saving at least three seconds on my trip to the stadium.

However, there was a problem.  In looking left and right, I failed to look into the rear-view mirror. I should have because, right behind me was a blue sedan with a red gum ball machine on the top (an adornment typical of police cars in the 1950s).  I was about to experience my first encounter with one of “the city’s finest” as he presented me with my first ticket for a moving violation.

That evening, as I nervously explained the event to my father, I said, “Dad, I was clearly in the wrong here.  I know that, but I’ve learned a lot from my mistake.”  After a long pause, my father came back, “Son, it is good to learn from your mistakes, but the path to a successful and happy life is to learn from other people’s mistakes.”  With that, he left the room, looking back to take full advantage of a teaching moment, “I presume you’ll save the money to pay the fine.”  Translation: No bailouts, personal responsibility, etc.

It was about that time that I got interested in reading history and biography.  These kinds of books are jammed full of other people’s experiences, including their mistakes.  To this day, history and biography are my favorite reads – though I continue to make my share of mistakes, notwithstanding what I read and my father’s admonition.

I thought of this earlier last week when a friend of mine sent me a transcript of an interview with Marylander Bill Bennett.  Though Bennett served as President Reagan’s secretary of education and later as drug czar for President Bush 41, he is perhaps best known to most Americans as a talk show host, TV commentator and the author of the best-selling “The Book of Virtues” and other popular and highly-readable books on the history of America, which he views as “the last best hope.”    Born in 1943, Bennett is now flirting with life in his 70s, which is also a good time to look in the rear-view mirror – both to take stock and to share your experiences with others.

When asked, “What do you wish you knew at age 50 that you know now?”  Bennett talked about the importance of valuing time, devoting time to things that matter:  Noting that time is precious, he said,  “Focus on the things that matter most. What do you take joy in? For me, it’s spending time with my family, working, and eliminating a lot of the noise and formalities of the world. Use your time right. The older I get the more I see what a marvel creation is. My worry is that I don’t spend enough time being grateful for all the blessings I have and cherishing them with the ones I love.”

Bennett also peered through the rear-view mirror after being asked what was it about his post-50 years life that came as the biggest surprise.

“The first surprise was that my interest in work quickened and increased. My horizons have broadened. I’m interested in more things than I was at 40 and I’m busier now than I was at 40.

“The second surprise was aging. Doctors tell you a lot of things about anti-aging treatments and programs, but you don’t realize the toll aging actually takes until you start to lose a step or two. We should all do more to stay healthy and prevent what aging we can.”

If wearing down and wearing out are an inevitable results of aging, Bennett clearly expresses the central idea of the Bonus Years – that it is better to wear out than rust out – when he says, “[Do] not think about retirement unless you really want to. Boredom and idleness kill more hearts of men than does work. You have powers, skills, and abilities you didn’t have when you were younger. Find other things and hobbies to do. I’ve had more opportunities in my 60s than I’ve ever had in my life. You accumulate work and projects you didn’t even know you knew or were interested in.”

Good advice, I’d say.

However, with all the new books and talk show chatter about happiness, I especially liked Bill Bennett’s “happiness advice” based on his own life’s experiences: “…don’t pursue happiness directly. Pursue faith, family, work, knowledge, and understanding – and happiness will come.”

Well said by a man who has not only thought deeply about these issues but who is living a later-life in which he remains, day-after-day, a productive and fully engaged husband, father, friend, worker and citizen.  A textbook example of successful aging.

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