This month I turn 65. At this milestone, I’d like to share five beliefs I now hold. Let me add: This is not, I hope, my “Last Lecture.” Those decisions are well above my pay grade. So, join me in looking in life’s rear-view mirror with poet Pablo Neruda as our navigator: “Hay que andar tanto por el mundo para constatar ciertas cosas” (“We have to walk a long way in the world to know the truth of certain things.”) First off, the trifecta of accepting, embracing and acting.
Belief No. 1: Accept your age. About four years ago I was sick, as in white tunnel to the afterlife sick. Two weeks over the holidays were lost to me. I finally saw a physician who told me, not unkindly: “Mr. Maslanka, you don’t realize how sick you were. Listen to me, you are not 40 years old anymore” Point taken. (Full disclosure: Perhaps advice not fully followed but fully believed.) Gravity wins, I promise. But you must not merely accept your age, you must actively embrace it. Otherwise advancing age is, well, the waste of a golden opportunity. An opportunity to reflect, to learn and to teach.
Belief No. 2: Embrace your age. ”Wherever you go, there you are.” That’s a Buddhist expression. It’s true. Let me digress a minute. In my course “Effective Oral Communication,” I teach the value of a pause by reading lines from “Ode to Autumn,” by John Keats. Here it goes: “Where are the songs of spring?/Ay, where are they?/Think not of them for thou hast thy music too.” I then read the lines without the rhetorical question. Falls flat doesn’t it? Keats’ rhetorical question allows the listener to take a cognitive breath and catch up with his point which is identical to mine: Focus on what is, not on what was. As poet Jack Gilbert reminds us: ”It’s the having not the keeping that is the treasure.” (From “The Lost Hotels of Paris.”)
Belief No. 3: Act your age. I am at a partner’s retreat. Wine is flowing, martinis are shaken, cocktails are mixed. A partner about seven years my senior proclaims to me: “You’ll see—when you are as old as I am you will say whatever you want, to whomever you want, whenever you want.” (Not quite so lucid but you get the gist.) I thought “how cool.” But I was wrong. I realize now that we must engage—as the Buddha taught us—in right speech. Speech that is candid, kind and transparent. Not reckless, uninformed and thoughtless. Whether as a senior partner with a junior associate, as a parent with a child or as a professor with a student. Younger humans listen to what we say, how we say it and why we say it. They’ll remember with all the consequences that flow from remembering.
Belief No 4: Youth is a tonic. I am childless, yet becoming a law professor awakens within me a lesson I assimilated from parents: Spending time with the young add years to your life—although it does not always feel that way. This lesson coalesces for me on the first day of the semester. I stand in front of the class. I see their hopeful and expectant faces. I understand that they are here to learn the law and to do good with their knowledge. My heart swells with gratitude to be their professor. I feel this way even in Week 15 after the semester takes its toll on us both. I am reminded of a passage from “Henry V” after Henry and his soldiers march through terrible weather conditions before the battle of Agincourt: “We are but warriors for the working day/our gayness and are gilt are all besmirched/with rainy marching in the painful field/…But by (God) our hearts are in the trim.” Go ahead: Hang with youth.
Belief No. 5: Relish life, sparingly. We hear the drumbeat from the joie de vivre crowd: Make every minute count; live life to the fullest; make those bucket lists. After all, they argue, time is running out. (Yes, I know it is.) I didn’t embrace these mindsets at 25, and I won’t start at 65. Doing so is, well, just too darn exhausting. The “Enjoy Every Sandwich” mindset is fine as in occasional exposure to the summer sun. A modest dose is healthy and rejuvenating; too much is toxic and numbing. (Caveat: We must, though, express gratitude every day, because anger, envy and jealousy cannot exist in the same space-time continuum with it.)
No. 6: Repackage, reframe, reposition (the three R’s). This is the art of lawyering and the art of living. The challenge: Dealing with the unhappiness triggered when expectations and reality do not sync up. The solution: the three R’s. I was with a defendant client in mediation where we settled. He had to pay some money, but I assured him doing so was a good deal, given our exposure. He smiled and said something I have never forgotten: “So you are telling me this was inexpensive tuition?” Now that’s a reframe. Several years ago I was nominated for an award. I lost. But the repackage went like this: “Mike, what would you rather have: to win the award and do half of what you have done in speaking and writing? Or lose and do all you have been privileged to do?” To ask these questions is to answer them.
A birthday implies we came from nothing, but we do not. We are always here, it’s just that we manifest when conditions are sufficient, and we don’t when they are not.
As a child, my family visited my Polish grandmother and uncle who worked daily—dairy cows do not understand the concept of the weekend—on a 90-acre farm near Buffalo. While the adults were in the postage stamp-sized house speaking indecipherable Polish, my brother and I explored the barn and the garage. It was dingy, cluttered and utilitarian, yet wedged in between was my grandmother’s flower bed.
In freezing February we saw—with our young and naked eyes—only dirt. In warming May, though, we saw the tulips and the daffodils. For me, an amazing memory and—I have come to believe—a wonderful foreshadowing.