My birthday is coming up. And, to borrow a line, the number is “yuuuge.”
When you turn 50, and realize that you likely have more yesterdays than tomorrows, you want to take stock of your life. So you create separate ledgers, one for your personal life and the other for your professional one.
Like many Americans, I spent years trying to juggle the two. And I didn’t always pull it off. Time spent driving kids to Little League games and Girl Scout meetings was time not spent working. You learn to prioritize the personal over the professional when you realize that those moments are precious, and that, once they pass, they never come back. Besides, your most important title in life is “Mom” or “Dad.”
My line of work as a columnist is not for the faint of heart. Unlike most jobs, it gets harder the longer you do it. Part of the reason is that my colleagues keep raising the bar. It’s one thing to do a task, and another to do it well.
In selecting a profession, I drew inspiration from Robert Frost and chose the road less traveled. And, after getting knocked around for years, I’ve learned why that path gets fewer takers.
Still, I’m proud of what I do and whatever impact I have. I was no legacy hire. My father was a cop, not a journalist. Everything I have accomplished, I made from scratch.
Even so, good parenting is harder. It feels like, every day, there’s a pop quiz with a high fail-rate. The questions are relentless. Am I too strict or too lenient? Am I doing so much for my three kids that they can’t do enough for themselves? Am I empowering them by supporting them, or weakening them by not letting them be accountable? Often there is no right answer.
Five years ago, I was sitting at a restaurant in Mexico City with a fellow journalist who had just written a book. I was feeling guilty for not having done the same. Then, as I recounted a typical week in the life of my crazy family, my friend – who has no children – grabbed my arm and marveled with a hint of detectable envy: “You have a life!”
In pondering both the personal and the professional, you think about where you’ve wound up, and where you started. You consider what you’ve done, and what you set out to do so many years ago. You think about how your life didn’t go according to plan, with all the unexpected twists and turns.
Moments of glory fade from memory, but you recall vividly the times you landed face down on the mat. You remember love and joy but also loss and pain. And you realize that, with the passage of time, your perspective and priorities have evolved.
A few weeks ago, in a pre-birthday ritual, I made two lists. The first was of the things I valued, sought and cared about when I was halfway down this road. The second was of the things that I value and care about now.
And, for those of you who’ve lived a life and traveled around the block, it won’t surprise you to hear that the lists were nothing alike. Not a single item was the same. Not one.
Twenty-five years ago, I was chasing money, fame, power, influence, excitement and access. I wanted to be at the center of the action, and bask in the bright lights of a big city. I cared about building a resume and grabbing every opportunity.
As I turn 50, I care that my children are safe and healthy, and that they have a bright and meaningful future. I hope that my wife and I are raising good people who are “-ful”: thankful, grateful and thoughtful. I crave stability, even as I work hard to provide for my family. I strive to have a positive impact on people’s lives, as I continue to do what I love. And I care about family and friends, and having enough time to enjoy both.
Life changed everything. And I have a new appreciation for the lyrics of the Bob Dylan classic “My Back Pages.” As I think about what I used to obsess over, I realize that: “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”
This gives me clarity, perspective and peace of mind. And those things make for great birthday presents.
Ruben Navarrette can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.