Such an incredible, stupefying realization: I am not, indeed, the center of the universe. Not! Not! Not! And the overwhelming gratitude, the flooding relief that comes from finally being able to give myself the permission to lay down that excruciating, exhausting burden of needing to prove to the world, every waking moment, that I am, indeed, undeniably, irrefutably The Center of the Universe.
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Now that you're old, cut yourself some slack, would you? Let yourself off the hook. Give yourself a break. You don't have to do it all anymore. Take it easy for a change. It's OK with the rest of the world. So why not you? For the first time in your life, do what you want. Not what everyone else thinks you should. Not what you think everyone else thinks you should. Do what you want. Excuse yourself. Say no. Back out. Beg off. Stay home. Take a rain check. Take a nap. Watch the ball game on TV. Anything but what you'd rather not do but feel you have to for everyone else's sake but your own. And then feel bad about having done it. That's plain wrong. And ask for some help when you need it: 'It's too heavy.' 'It's too far.' Too near. Too cold. Too hot. Too bright. Too dark. Whatever. It's OK because there's always going to be something you need help with anymore. And be grateful for the helping hand. You'll find more and more people extend one to you these days. Whatever the reason for accepting you've got the best excuse in the world. The only one you'll ever need: 'Hey, I'm old.
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Regrets are particularly poignant for the old, those of us who have used up most of the chances we'll ever get and are left to make peace with our failed choices. Most things distance themselves with space and time to eventually slide off the edge of our consciousness, but not regrets. You can shove them aside, disavow them for a lifetime, but they always return. And the longer you deny them, the more they punish you when they can no longer be held at bay.
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Vanishing cream for the mind, English writer Jeremiah Creedon calls it. It's beholding the mote in your brother's eye, says the Bible, while disregarding the beam in your own. Denial is refusing to listen to the voice that awakens you in the night and whispers, "You know, you really are an incredible jerk and you ought to do something about it!" "Beware thoughts that come in the night, " cautions William Least Heat Moon at the start of Blue Highways, his evocative journal of self-discovery on the back roads of America. "They aren't turned properly. They come in askew, free of sense or satisfaction, deriving from the most remote of sources." Samuel Taylor Coleridge called those remote sources "an aching hollow in the bosom, a dark cold speck at the heart, an obscure and boding sense of something that must be kept out of sight of the conscience, some secret lodger, whom they can neither resolve to reject or retain." Denial is keeping from ourselves secrets we already know. It's choosing to forget what we can't bear to remember. It's making people tell us what we want to hear so we can keep believing the lies we've told ourselves, keep punishing those who dare to make us listen to the truth. Denial is the psychology of self-deception, the mind's deliberate failure to see things as they really are in order to protect ourselves from ourselves, says Donald Goldman, author of Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. Familiar words of denial: It's not about the money. I am not a crook. I was only obeying orders. Business is business. I can quit whenever I want. I don't remember.
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At the beach, fifty years later, the old man understands finally that much of what he disavowed in himself before recognizing its irretrievable value, most of the heartache he caused himself and those who chose to love him, came out of that repudiation of his true self. Such is the power of denial, the old man now realizes: a comforting ally in our struggles for survival, a fierce foe in our quest for ourselves. Denial finds us when we feel most alone, and only alone can we banish this demon that bars the long way home.
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I woke up this morning with the words clomping around in my head: 'Truth does not become wisdom until the exact moment you're ready for it. No one can force it on you, even though everyone thinks they have a right to try. So the rest of us should just put a sock in it. Bug out. Leave everyone to discover their own truths, each in their own way, all in their own time. And go find our own wisdom. Which will happen. But not until that exact, excruciating, exactly right moment when, at long last, confusing, convoluted truth becomes simple, crystal-clear wisdom. Because we're finally, gloriously, ready for it. Not a second before.
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In the 1991 movie, City Slickers, Jack Palance gives Billy Crystal some profoundly simple advice. When Crystal asks him the secret of life, Palance holds up a forefinger, answers with a single word: "One." Choose one thing. Do it to the best of your ability. Let it go. Pick something else. Repeat endlessly. How sad that so much of our lives is spent looking back over our shoulders or gazing far ahead instead of wringing full benefit from the only thing we truly own: Now. This moment. None other. There is no other. How tragic, therefore, not to fulfill its unique promise before it passes from us forever. How much of our regret comes from wasting so many of our moments wanting something better, something different, something other than what we have at the moment we have it.
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Curmudgeons speak up because they have to, because it's become critically important for them to tell the truth as they see it. Telling the truth is as natural to them now as when they were children. The fact that no one cares to listen is inconsequential. What curmudgeons don't realize, however, is that most people can't handle the truth they force on everyone within earshot-not when it comes from others. For the truth is something we need to discover for ourselves, each in our own heart, each in our own time, each in our own way. The truth-your truth, my truth-is something we need to hear directly from God, preferably on long walks by the sea." But curmudgeons don't care. Most annoying of all, they don't understand that no one appreciates the absurdities of the human condition flung in their faces-reason enough for them to bite their tongues, but they seldom do.
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Think back. How many of your sweetest dreams, your greatest hopes, your most cherished desires have come true? On the other hand, how much of what you didn't really care about wound up happening anyway? What you have to understand is that it's the god of solitude who also happens to be in charge of denying us what we desperately want. She does it because she believes the more we get what we desperately want, the more miserable we become, even more so than we already are. As Truman Capote put it, "More tears are shed for answered prayers than unanswered ones." So the god of solitude is only trying to help us not be miserable getting what we thought would make us happy. Though once in a while she'll let it happen to teach us the secret of happiness is to be grateful for what we already have. Not constantly wanting, trying to get more. The way to outsmart her, then, is not to care one way or the other. That way, too, when you don't get what you want, you won't be disappointed because it won't really matter.
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