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Don’t stay too long; it will end badly

The history of nations and organisations is replete with examples of leaders who just won’t let go. Even when their time is emphatically and visibly up, too many just can’t detach themselves from the habits and trappings of power.

These stories usually end badly.

I explained here last week: there is a time and a place for all the activities and priorities of your life. There is an age for everything. An age in which to study without earthly burdens on your shoulders; an age in which to procreate, achieve, take charge and be at the centre of things; an age in which to reflect, take stock, deepen wisdom and ease off; and finally, an age in which to let go of worldly matters.

Doing the wrong thing in the wrong age is what leads to drama and discomfort. And most of us, once we get trapped in worldly matters, just can’t evolve any further. We love being someone who’s needed and valued; we love the rewards of accomplishment, both tangible and intangible. We enjoy being attractive and important and recognised – so much so that we can’t move on from these addictions.

‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ These words from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:11) are well known and well understood. We must grow, and we must cast aside the things that mesmerised us in the past, otherwise we remain trapped in things we should have left behind. Our growth comes from changing our preoccupations and our paraphernalia.

But why is it we fail to understand that growth and evolution should happen throughout our lives, not just when we become adults? Why is it we cannot grasp that there are toys of adulthood that we also need to leave behind? There is a time to value your possessions and your social connections and your fame and your status – and there is also a time to leave these trivial pursuits behind.

The teacher Swami Parthasarathy, in his various writings and discourses, explains the idea of renunciation well. It does not mean walking away from all material possessions and relationships and becoming an ascetic; no, renunciation is something we should all aspire to and not fear. We need not stop enjoying things; all we need to do is elevate our enjoyment to a higher level.

When we were children, we had many toys and playthings. We were very attached to them. As we matured, however, those toys stopped holding any meaning for us – even though they were right there. Our attention moved on as we evolved.

It is the same with the playthings of grownups. In the middle part of our lives we may become attached to many pursuits: sensual pleasure, the exercise of power, the need to feel needed. But these too must become mere playthings that we move on from. They can stay right there amongst us – but we should change our attachment to them. We can only grow further if these toys, too, can be left behind.

Few pull it off. Many use artificial and desperate means to look young, because they allow being attractive to be the entire meaning of their lives. Many eat and drink as though they were half their age, not realising that their bodies can no longer handle the challenge. And many persist in their duties of office, refusing to countenance a transition or a succession, when their nations and organisations badly need fresh blood and fresh thinking.

A wiser person takes stock every few years, and decides which things to let go of. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it brilliantly: ‘To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.’

As we age, we should be changing not only our wardrobes and our appetites, but also our roles and responsibilities. Coaching others, reducing our active responsibilities, allowing new thinking to enter the arena – this is how thoughtful persons evolve. They go before they are asked to, or before nature intervenes.

Human achievement is not just about us, in our brief lives; it is about being part of a chain of humans on earth over aeons. If we have that in mind, we would regard handovers and fadeaways as natural – and necessary – parts of living this life.

(Sunday Nation, 7 July 2019)

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