Twenty Years

TIM BAKER

September 13, 1993|By TIM BAKER

Summer dies. The harvest begins. In another month the leaves will turn. As the annual cycle renews itself, take an hour. Go off by yourself. Find a place where no one will interrupt you. Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Close your eyes.

Imagine yourself 20 years from now. Imagine that you are standing in the place where you most enjoy being alone. Imagine yourself, 20 years in the future, looking back over that span of time. Looking back over the things you'd done. Where you had lived. With whom. Where you'd worked. Things you'd tried. Your successes. Failures. The ways you'd changed your life. The ways you hadn't.

As you stand there, remembering these things, a smile spreads across your face. A smile of satisfaction. These years have given you a deep sense of fulfillment. Watch your own face. Twenty years from now. Smiling.

What had you done during those years that made you feel so good?

Don't ''think'' of an answer to that question. This is not a problem to be solved or a plan to be devised. Don't try to figure it out with your rational intellect. Instead of thinking, just watch your face as it appears to you in this fantasy. As you watch it, notice what drifts into your consciousness.

If you're like me, you may have trouble with this exercise. The whole time I'm trying to envision myself 20 years from now, my mind keeps chattering away at me.

''This is so dumb -- sitting here trying to imagine how you'll feel then. What a waste of time!''

I try to ignore the continuous stream of comments. It's difficult. But if I persist -- if I keep focusing on that smile -- every once in a while something unexpected pops into my head about what I had done during those 20 years.

I'd taken my grandchildren camping every summer.

''Come on! You don't even have any grandchildren.''

What do you mean? I have at least six of them.

''So?''

So I've spent a lot of time with them, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Back in September, 1993, however, I wasn't even thinking about my future grandchildren. Instead, I was planning my next few columns. Trying to sell my short stories. Handling matters for my clients. Working on this. Arranging that.

There I was following my life along as if it were leading me rather than me leading it. If I had kept that up for another 20 years, I might have missed my grandchildren. And a lot more. But when I stop and imagine myself looking back 20 years from now, I suddenly feel more focused and more intentional about where I want my life to go.

How would we live the rest of our lives if we could see them from the perspective of 20 years in the future? Suppose we could paint those years any way we wanted? No gimmicks. No winning lottery tickets. No sudden appointments to the Supreme Court. Draw only those things which are actually within your power to choose.

How much of our lives do we choose? Consciously choose? When we each paint the years upon the canvas, do our lives end up like those paint-by-number pictures? Do we follow somebody else's script? March to somebody else's music?

Or do our lives just happen to us? As if we were characters in a Eugene O'Neill drama? Remember Mary Tyrone's haunting words in ''Long Day's Journey into Night'': ''None of us can help the things life has done to us. They're done before you realize it, and once they're done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you'd like to be, and you've lost your true self forever.''

Some day it's going to be 20 years from now. Or 25. Or 37. Some time I'm going to stand somewhere and look back on my life, including the stretch of it that begins this fall.

When that day comes, I probably won't care much about the things that seem to drive my life today. Even selling my stories probably won't be as important to me as the joy of having written them.

Instead, when I look back 20 years from now, I will want in some way to have been of service. To have done a least one brave deed and many kind ones. To have my children like me. To share grandchildren with my wife and rejoice with her that we have spent our lives together.

It looks different looking back. More solid. Better. More real.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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