When I was in my late teens, I developed the habit of asking myself when faced with a quandary “Will this matter in fifty years?” As I was a teenager, frequently the answer was no. No, it didn’t matter that people were talking about me behind my back, or that my legs were skinny, or that I wasn’t like the popular girls. Yes, my relationship with my parents was worth preserving, because even though they couldn’t relate to my now, I was surely going to need to ask them for money at some point. Somewhere along the line, the long-term perspective became ingrained in my thinking and I stopped asking the question.
Until the other day, contemplating the difference a few months had made to my life. We live in the now (or the five seconds ago, at least), from day to day, weekend to weekend. And we wake up and another year has gone by, and we get depressed because life feels so … samey. But what if we measured our lives in decades, evaluated our achievements in those terms?
When I was 10, I had learnt to walk, talk, read, engage in witty banter with my peers (well, sort of), and was starting to win arguments.
When I was 20, I could write poetry, be somebody’s shoulder to cry on, tell stories to children and dream of my future. I had developed self-confidence, and a sense not only of my personhood, but that I had a purpose.
When I was 30, I had survived a broken heart and come out stronger on the other side, experienced the power of love, and dared to risk all by emigrating to another country without employment. I was more determined than ever, but had finally figured out that I didn’t know everything.
By the time I’m 40, I will be a domestic goddess. Or maybe not.
But see the difference? Year on year, we don’t always see the progress we make. We look for seismic shifts, when life is more like continental drift. (And truthfully, would you want an earthquake shaking up your life every week?)
Time changes things. We learn to let go of disappointments, or become bitter from holding on. It distils the truths by which we build our lives – we can look back and trace our decisions, and see what really motivated us in the past, and now. It distorts things too, so that the details become murky, and sometimes it’s easier to forgive. It changes us, by our personal journey giving us space between the “nowness” of an event and the reflected memory. Sometimes that space means we can confront issues that we couldn’t deal with at the time.
But for time to do all these things, we need to sit back, reflect. Stop living by the deadlines, and start living by the decades. Give yourself space to reflect on how different you are now from that person you were 10 years ago. There are things you will have got right, and things you will have got wrong, but the important thing is, you’re still here, and you’re still going. And that’s an achievement.