I'm taking a course this summer through our senior learning center -- via Zoom, naturally -- that focuses on President Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
The instructor set the stage by reviewing what was happening in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and how the world was so very different then. Participants in the class were encouraged to offer their own memories of the times -- including a woman who grew up in Boston as an ardent Kennedy supporter and a man who spent several years in the National Guard facing off against war protesters.
We all acknowledged a few things about those days. For example, despite the general impression that the 1950s were a time of prosperity and conformity, and the 1960s a time of idealism and freedom, people who lived through that era actually had different experiences and held different points of view. Not everybody was a hippie. Not everyone attended a protest march. Not everyone took part in the sexual revolution.
We also realized that people's memories are colored by later experiences. What we remember may not be how things actually happened. And we were young. We were more idealistic, more hopeful. The world was in front of us.
So what have we learned in the past 50 years?
For one thing, we all probably thought that we'd live forever, that we would always be young, that nothing would change. But life can and does move on. All things are temporary. Friends come and go; children grow up; jobs that once held meaning now seem irrelevant.
We had friends in school who drifted away after we graduated. I remember going through the ritual of becoming "blood brothers" with my best friend in sixth grade. Friends forever. And we were . . . at least through high school. But we went to different colleges, followed different careers. We caught up at our 25th high-school reunion; but we haven't seen each other since.
We've had friends from work who seemed important to us . . . until we weren't working there anymore. I'm reminded of the line from Fleetwood Mac: "Players only love you when they're playing."
Now we know. Certain people are important in our lives . . . until they aren't. Maybe today that drives us to redouble our efforts to keep up with old friends. Or, maybe now that we're older, we don't feel as if we need as many friends. We no longer need to be "popular" or "cool" -- do we? Maybe it's enough to be with family, or just one or two best friends. Does life get smaller as we get older?
We had dreams as kids. Did we go on to live those dreams? Develop new ones? How much did we compromise in order to keep a job, raise a family, or maybe live a life that our parents dreamed for us, rather than the one we dreamed for ourselves?
We also know about the choices we've made, both the good and the bad. They've affected our careers, our relationships . . . and often our health. I think back to the days when I smoked cigarettes, at first because it was cool, and then because I was addicted. Now my reaction is: How could I have been so stupid?
I've gotten away with it, so far. But sometimes I wonder if the stupidity of my 20s will end up killing me in my 70s.
What I do know is that my old ankle injury from a car accident, and the knee injury from playing tennis, are coming back to haunt me. We do not all age at the same rate. Maybe it's our genes, or maybe our lifestyle, but some of us are healthy well into our 80s; while others are limping around in our 60s. But I'd venture to say that most of us have something going on to remind us that the body doesn't last forever.
We also know that life offers no guarantees. Sometimes, when you least expect it, things can go terribly wrong. One day you're healthy, the next you're in the hospital. One day your friend, or your spouse, is alive. Then they're gone.
Perhaps, by now, we've been cured of our addiction to ambition. Does it really matter so much that we did or didn't get that promotion, that our kids did or didn't get accepted to their first-choice college, that we maybe should have jumped at that opportunity to start our own business, or live overseas, or have another child? We know that life is not a race, it's a journey. We've moved past the disappointments. There will be good times, and bad times, and "this too shall pass."
We also know -- as revealed in our memories of the '60s -- that people live under different circumstances and experience events in various ways. Perhaps we become more tolerant as we age, more understanding of those who have different points of view. We can "agree to disagree" with friends or family members, and maybe understand why they've chosen an unusual lifestyle, or hold onto ideals that don't make sense to us.
Finally, I hope we can appreciate what poet Robert Frost wrote: "But I have promises to keep / and miles to go before I sleep." No matter what our age, we can make new friends, try new things, contribute to society, find meaning in family, and seek out joy in unexpected places.