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Knowing when to change your life

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‘To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…’

Ecclesiastes conveyed it so well in the Bible. But who is really paying attention? Do we humans really live our lives as seasons? Or is it everything goes, all the time?

Ancient Hindu philosophy went further and spelled out the four stages of life. Let me give you a modern take on what they are.

First, there is the Studying stage – the early part of life ending with young adulthood which should be dedicated mostly to discovery and learning about the world we find ourselves in. It is not the only time in life in which we learn (that should happen all the way to our deathbeds), but it is the phase in which we are free of the other demands of life, and can devote ourselves to education, whether formal or not.

That stage ends after the first quarter-century or so of our lives. The second period now kicks in: the Worldly stage. This is the phase in which we settle down, create families, build our careers, acquire material wealth and record other accomplishments of life. Earthly rewards – wealth, fame, status, power, love – may come our way in this stage.

After the half-century mark, however, the wise person changes things again. The Withdrawal stage should now kick in. From this point on, we should focus less on worldly matters and move our attention to wisdom, spirituality, philosophy and service. It is not a retirement age, but it is one in which we should adjust our aims and objectives and start to pass on our former duties. We should detach ourselves from matters of gain, and start to reflect on the meaning of our lives. It is the time in which to coach and guide, and to hand over to others and build continuity – not to remain the centre of attention.

The final stage of the earthly body is that of Renunciation. From here, the three-quarter mark of our lives, we should look to detach ourselves from our former duties and connections to our physical lives, and prepare for our passing with equanimity. This is the time of life to aim for the transcendent, not the material.

Lives and lifespans are, of course, unpredictable, so these stages are not cast in stone. The point is more subtle: to the extent that you can plan it out, you should be aware that a good life passes through different seasons or stages; and one must not stay trapped in the wrong stage at the wrong age.

What typically happens is that hardly anyone makes it to stage three! Most became so enamoured of stage two – the stage of pleasure and achievement – that they are unable to take the foot off the pedal even when the hair has greyed and grandchildren have appeared. Too many of us hold on because of our self-worth is wrapped up in worldly rewards. We want the applause and the achievement and the pleasure to continue.

Albert Brooks had an interesting take on the four stages in The Atlantic recently when he overheard a fellow airplane traveller – a famous, hugely accomplished man now in his eighties – tell his wife that he wished he were dead because no one needed him anymore.

This is a classic example of failure to leave stage two: remaining addicted to the rewards of the world. When your only sense of meaning as an old person comes from young-person things – the professional skills, honours and successes of times past – you become a frustrated, resentful person. Instead of devoting your mind to the transition to come, you keep trying to relive your ‘golden’ years.

The problem, as Brooks points out, is that you will never be able to pull it off. Cognitive and professional decline is real. You will not be as sharp as you once were; nor will you be able to keep up with the inevitable changes in the world.

Don’t be the visionary founder who refuses to let go; the lauded leader who pays no attention to succession planning; the comedic figure who keeps trying to look desperately young. All these situations end badly.

The wise life, should a long one be gifted to us, is one of managed transitions and peaceful passages between the essential stages of our time on earth. More on that next week.

(Sunday Nation, 30 June 2019)

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