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New York Times / Life - Entertain

Opinion | Baby Boomers Reach the End of Their To-Do List

This isn’t sloth. It isn’t exhaustion. It’s finally being aware of existing for its own purpose.


Life, if you’re lucky, is divided into thirds, my father used to say: youth, middle age and “You look good.” The dawn of that third stage is glinting right at me.

It isn’t simply that at this point more life is behind me — behind any middle-aged person — than lies ahead. Middle-aged? Who am I kidding? Who do you know who’s 144?

It’s not just about aging. By the time you’ve worked long enough, hard enough, real life begins to reveal itself as something other than effort, other than accomplishment. Real life wishes to be left to its own purposeless devices.

This isn’t sloth. It isn’t even exhaustion. It’s a late-arriving awareness of consciousness existing for its own sake.

The to-do list that runs most lives through middle age turns out, in this latter stage of existence, to have only one task: to waste life in order to find it. Who said that? Or something like that. Jesus? Buddha? Bob Dylan? Somebody who knew what’s what.

Mine was the first year of the notorious American baby boom, 1946. The year three of our recent presidents were born: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump. “You’re a boomer!” we were always told, as if we were named for the bomb, that midcentury annihilator.

We got all the good stuff.

The postwar hope and determination of our Depression-era parents was piled upon us, the fossil fuel of earlier generations we burned up without a care. We had a preposterously long sense of our own youthfulness.

But now the boomers are approaching the other side. Not death necessarily (though the time has begun when no one will say we were cut down too early). We’re reaching the other side of striving.

You should try meditating or maybe yoga — yoga’s good,” someone said when I mentioned my fevered to-do lists, the sometimes alarming blood pressure readings, the dark-night-of-the-soul insomnia.

But meditating is just another thing. Yoga? Another task, another item for the to-do list.

This battle between striving and serenity may be distinctly American. The struggle between toil and the dream of ease is an American birthright, the way a Frenchman expects to have decent wine at a reasonable price, and the whole month of August on vacation.

Maybe it goes all the way back to the Declaration of Independence, our founding document. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How proud I’ve always been, through the years of protesting, the radical this and progressive that of my 1960s generation, to think of those words.

That unlikely word — happiness — made me proud to be an American, not just for my own sake, but that everyone was enjoined to find a personal project of delight. Of course happiness is an illusion. Still, I’ll pledge allegiance to it.

But happiness is the only word in the Declaration of Independence triad that doesn’t stand alone. Happiness is not, like life and liberty, a given. Happiness in the American credo is a job. It must be pursued. It may not be clear what happiness is, but you better get hold of it. Your fault, sucker, if you can’t somehow nab it for yourself.

The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.

This is where the struggle is engaged, happiness as a national enterprise. Its pursuit is the loneliness coiled within the heart of the American dream.

Even a postmodern to-do list is not the answer. Go ahead — meditate, do yoga, eat probiotic foods, all that.

But how about just giving up? What about wasting time? Giving up or perhaps giving over. To what? Perhaps what an earlier age called “the life of the mind,” the phrase that describes the sovereign self at ease, at home in the world. This isn’t the mind of rational thought, but the lost music of wondering, the sheer value of looking out the window, letting the world float along. It’s nothing, really, this wasted time, which is how it becomes, paradoxically, charged with “everything,” liberated into the blessed loss of ambition.

Other cultures labor, but what other nation implores each citizen to tackle happiness as a solo endeavor, a crazy paradox of a hunt for something that cannot, after all, be earned but can only be bestowed from the mysterious recesses of life? Give it up. Waste the day.

That’s what that great American lounger Whitman did. “I loaf and invite my soul,” he wrote. “I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.” In this way he came to his great conception of national citizenship for Americans, “the dear love of comrades.” His loafing led to solidarity.

It’s no coincidence that our most American poet handed out this contrary notion — to loaf — amid what he called our “democratic vistas.” There’s not much said about American vistas these days. Instead, there are plans to militarize a wall on our southern border.

Loafing is not a prudent business plan, not even a life plan, not a recognizably American project. But it begins to look a little like happiness, the kind that claims you, unbidden. Stay put and let the world show up? Or get out there and be a flâneur? Which is it? Well, it’s both.

Maybe this is what my father’s third stage of life is about — wondering, rather than pursuing. You look good — meaning, hey, you’re still alive, you’re still here, and for once you don’t really need to have a to-do list.

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