Life, if you’re lucky, is divided into thirds, my father used to say: youth, middle age and “You look good.”...By the time you’ve worked long enough, hard enough, real life begins to reveal itself as something other than effort, other than accomplishment...It’s a late-arriving awareness of consciousness existing for its own sake...in this latter stage of existence, to have only one task: to waste life in order to find it.
...now the boomers are approaching the other side...the other side of striving...The battle between striving and serenity may be distinctly American. The struggle between toil and the dream of ease is an American birthright, the way a Frenchman expects to have decent wine at a reasonable price, and the whole month of August on vacation...The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.
But how about just giving up? What about wasting time? Giving up or perhaps giving over. To what? Perhaps what an earlier age called “the life of the mind,” the phrase that describes the sovereign self at ease, at home in the world. This isn’t the mind of rational thought, but the lost music of wondering, the sheer value of looking out the window, letting the world float along...That’s what that great American lounger Whitman did. “I loaf and invite my soul,” he wrote. “I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.” In this way he came to his great conception of national citizenship for Americans, “the dear love of comrades.” His loafing led to solidarity.
Loafing is not a prudent business plan, not even a life plan, not a recognizably American project. But it begins to look a little like happiness, the kind that claims you, unbidden. Stay put and let the world show up? Or get out there and be a flâneur? Which is it? Well, it’s both.
Maybe this is what my father’s third stage of life is about — wondering, rather than pursuing. You look good — meaning, hey, you’re still alive, you’re still here, and for once you don’t really need to have a to-do list.