One night this past summer, sitting in the little slice of heaven we call our back deck, the Marvelous María Beatriz and I hosted Jose Luis, an old friend we hadn’t seen in a while, and his wife, Rafaela, whom we had never met. They happened to be in our part of New Jersey for an event with family, and luck made it possible for us to cook them dinner and get the origin story of how they met and decided to make a life together.
Among the many topics that floated on the breeze that swept across our table was about Jose Luis’ plans for the next five years or so. He likes the scientific research he’s doing in Boston about cancer, and he feels he’s making significant, if incremental, contributions to the knowledge base about the disease and its possible cures. But he also feels somewhat isolated as well, his colleagues being work colleagues but not ones with whom he’d be able to strike up a friendship and possibly even a longer-term relationship. Originally from Spain, he also feels a pull back to the Iberian homeland, to its very different assumptions from the United States about the value and meaning of a life, as well as to Europe itself and its lengthy histories, which give his mind a greater imaginative playground and grounding.
He would like to walk the full length of the Camino de Santiago. He wants to watch the sun go down from the portico of the Parthenon, then travel to Crete to watch the sun set over Libya from the city of Mátala. He re-reads the Iliad and the Odyssey on a periodic basis to refresh his sense of adventure. He wants to reprise life-changing trips he had made to Italy and Sicily.
But even though his soul wants to wander and re-wander, what he craves most is what the four of us were doing on the slice of heaven: eating, drinking, talking and talking and talking for five hours that slipped by like nothing. These times are the ones he feels gives him the most life, and he can never have enough of them.
He’s got a point, and one based in science, which would please the part of his spirit that craves and respects precision. Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of a 75-year-long longitudinal study called the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School, gave a well-received TEDx talk back in 2015 about what the study showed about healthy aging.
The short take: the warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on “life satisfaction.” Not fame, not wealth, but what we did on the back deck spread across as many people and continents as possible for as many years as possible. The relationships, of course, are never all smooth sailing, but whatever negatives come out through bickering or indifference are negated by the knowledge that the people in the relationship are completely reliable no matter what happens: they will never leave you. That solidity is the fundament of a life felt to be happy and rewarding.
Waldinger also talked about how deadly loneliness is as a vector of shortened lifespans and lessened pleasure and how a pursuit of wealth and/or fame only strengthened its toxicity.
Given all this, I think we all reach a point when it no longer makes sense (if it ever did) to “lean in” to work, career, building an extensive résumé, acquiring wealth (which most of us will never have, anyway) but, instead, to “lean back” into the chair on the deck or the shared beer after work or the long-deferred phone call to the sibling we’ve been avoiding and take the good medicine that such actions bring forth.
I have the memory of a U. Utah Phillips song (I now can’t seem to track it down) where he has a conversation with his upright neighbor, who takes him to task for sitting on his porch engaged in the not-quite-respectable work of making music. This neighbor had hewed to what he thought were the proper rules of his role—steadfast career in a job that was not all that interesting until he earned his retirement—and he castigates Phillips for not having taken the same route.
“You should have a job,” he says, and Phillips replies, “Why?”
“So you can earn money.” “Why?”
“So that you can earn enough to one day retire and enjoy your life.” “That’s what I’m doing right now.”
Choosing “right now” is hard because so many competing shoulds muck up the choosing: should have job, should have fame, should have success. It takes a discipline of resistance, Phillips seems to be saying, to make “right now” the should that governs.
Having Jose Luis and Rafaela show up at our doorstep was the kind of unexpected gift that reminded us to keep sharing, keep lengthening, keep the touch light but constant, warm and invitational.