On paper, my life looked like a brilliant success: I was in my prime, had a thriving and rewarding law practice, was married to my soul mate and had two beautiful daughters. We owned a lovely house in Miami and a vacation home on Sanibel Island. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, I’d wake up in a cold sweat, grappling with questions I couldn’t answer. The worst part was, I couldn’t even articulate them.
Now in my mid-60s, with hindsight, I have more understanding of what was going on. While everything looked so perfect on the outside, on the inside I was struggling to understand and accept certain events in my life.
My mother had been fighting cancer since as far back as I can remember. She went from doctor to doctor, from surgery to surgery, trying to treat a form of leukemia that had no cure back then. Braced for her death, I was taken by surprise when my father died first, in his sleep, when he was in his mid-50s. My mother died the following year. I was in my mid-20s, had just graduated from law school and had a young family.
Around the same time, I saw Ingmar Bergman’s haunting film, The Hour of the Wolf, whose title refers to the time of the night when most births and deaths supposedly occur (2 or 3 a.m.). That concept stayed with me like a ghost and is probably one reason I unconsciously awoke each night so troubled.
Also at this time, I developed trigeminal neuralgia, a horrifically painful condition. For years I was able to bear the pain by using everything from anti-seizure medication and botox to acupuncture and meditation. But I felt like a victim and couldn’t believe the way my life was turning out.
Everything was coming to a head, and when the “wolf” would keep me up at night, I realized I had to find my own heroic way to seize control of these circumstances and find some “larger story” of my life — and of life itself.
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Seeking the Meaning of Life
The first thing I had to do was confront the mask I was wearing: of the successful trial lawyer with the “perfect" life. One day in 1988 I said to my wife, “My fictional hero Larry Darrell said he had to go to the Himalayas to find the meaning of life, and we need to do the same thing.” (Darrell is a character in Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge.)
So in May 1990, I took a month’s vacation, and we set off for the fabled range. I had brought along The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s classic tale of his pilgrimage to the Himalayas, in which he says, “The mountains have no meaning; the mountains are meaning.”
On that trip, I had two epiphanies. The first was when I first caught sight of Mount Everest: I just wordlessly understood that I was part of that mountain — not just a guy taking pain pills but a piece of something much larger.
The other came when I met a monk at a monastery. I actually asked him, “What is the meaning of life?" To which he basically responded, “Lighten up!” — meaning I was so self-absorbed with everything that I couldn’t enjoy the moment.
Up there, 15,000 feet above the world, for the first time in my life I witnessed people just content with their lot in life, not always looking for the next thing to do, accomplish, buy. I wanted that contentment and decided to seek it out.
I spent the next 10 or 12 years doing anything and everything to deepen my understanding and experience life. I did a meditation retreat at Kripalu, the yoga center in the Berkshires; trekked across the ice fields of Mont Blanc in the French Alps; studied shamanism and energy healing at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur; and motorcycled through the Everglades, the Rockies and back roads of North Carolina.
My spiritual life was thriving, but eventually I couldn’t handle my physical pain and succumbed to last-resort surgery. Afterward, the doctor (who’d invented the procedure) told me I was "cured," I felt reborn. And I had a strong need to help people who were suffering, going through crises or simply wanted to live each day to its fullest.
So I decided to write a book and call it Hour of the Wolf. "As I was writing it, it served as my personal journal. Now it’s intended to be a kind of manual for finding meaning and happiness in each day, even as the days are slipping away. The question I posed to myself on my journey — and that I ask readers of the book — is this: Can a single day fulfill the promises and dreams of a lifetime regardless of one’s health, age or stage in life?
When I take my last breath, I don’t want to have anything left in the gas tank. I want to be able to say that I presented myself fully to life, that I tried to live so I would not have regrets. I also want to teach my children not to be fearful of life.
This book is my moral and ethical legacy to my children and grandchildren. I want them to know that it is the singular day and its possibilities that are the ultimate prize.
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Reflections on Aging
As some people get older, they start restricting their activities. But that reaction is often voluntary — and arbitrary. We may look different on the outside, but within we’re still just us. And when we limit our activities, we lose our sense of self.
Why do we do this? Is it fear of injury or embarrassment? Are we just reacting in ways that conform to how the world treats us? It’s wonderful to be eligible for Medicare, Social Security and reduced rates at the movies, but for some people, there can be an insidious effect from seeing “senior discount” signs everywhere.
Slowly, this marginalization can erode our self-esteem — if we let it. Many people, as they age, start to believe that their stories and journeys are of less importance than they used to be. But that’s just a self-imposed belief. The road is never barricaded unless we believe it is. Most of the things we want to do are still available to us if we choose. So why do we limit ourselves?
In the animal kingdom, species don’t intentionally restrict their own activity. Maybe an old dog can’t run like he used to, but he doesn’t stop trying. Why should we be any different? With all our gifts and talents, we humans so often end up using those talents to limit our own potential.
It wasn’t always this way. In different cultures and eras, elder family members were revered and sought out to provide wise counsel. They were the family historians, the keepers of secrets. The young desired their wisdom. My mantra has become: Aging is irrelevant in a world where each life is a celebration and age is just a number.
(MORE: Aging as a Spiritual Practice)
10 Ways to Age Timelessly
In my journey, I've come up with 10 steps to live more joyfully in every moment of every day:
- Repair relationships with family and friends. Be the one to forgive or apologize. Don’t let old arguments or misunderstandings derail an otherwise healthy relationship. However, if a relationship is truly toxic, let it go and move on.
- Embrace yourself, flaws and all. Stop the recording playing in your head that dwells on failures and shortcomings. We are perfect in our imperfections and should celebrate our uniqueness. For example, one of my “flaws” was always having a counter-argument prepared, so my practice became really listening to others.
- Welcome new adventures. Don't let age or fear prevent you from trying something new. I started riding motorcycles at 54 (and my wife 10 years later). We both took up CrossFit four years ago (when I was 64) to stay in shape, but it’s also fun and provides the healthy risk we still want in our lives.
- Remember that dreams don't have expiration dates. This journey is not over until you say it is. So don't stop dreaming. Creating your bucket list is a never-ending process.
- Stay physically active. Whether walking or doing a lot more, push yourself just a little each day — to your realistic limit. Respect and appreciate your body and its potential. It takes care of you, so you have to take care of it.
- Look out and up. Try to connect to the bigger picture, the mountain. Life is more than gossip and the 24/7 news cycle. Reflect on things beyond your own boundaries. Find one positive aspect of each day, even if it’s just contemplating the beauty of a sunset.
- Live in the moment. Tomorrow is not promised to anyone. Learn from the past, but rehashing it accomplishes nothing. Worrying about the future cheats you out of today. What I love most about motorcycle riding and CrossFit is that they force me to be fully present in the moment. But in reality, all of life is that way.
- Nurture the child still living inside you. I keep on my dresser a picture of my wife and myself taken when we were both about 7 years old. It helps me remember that there’s a very alive child in each of us who wants, and needs, to play and have fun. It also helps me forgive the child who still is learning.
- Develop new skills. It keeps passion flowing. (It’s also good for your brain and your mood.) Find something of interest and try it. If it doesn't feel right, try something else. Just make it yours.
- Genuinely connect with people. Don't isolate yourself from the hustle and flow of the day. Reach out to friends and family. Loneliness is a disease that drains you of the human experience, which is your birthright.
Paul Lipton is co-chair of the 11th Judicial Circuit Committee on Professionalism for lawyers and judges in Dade County, Fla. He is also an author and blogs at The Ageless Experiment.