"What have you done? The year is gone."
I was a teenager when I first read those two sentences on a page covering the last week of December in The Old Farmer’s Almanac. They’ve stuck with me ever since, especially during the last week of December.
Yes, everyone who isn’t Steve Jobs would love to have done more with their lives, and, yes, each year gives us new opportunities to “do” something. We have an unlimited supply of years, right? Since we don’t, each one that goes by without enough doing is another reminder of, well, you know.
Musical satirist Tom Lehrer once said that at times we all realize “how little you’ve accomplished” by noting that “for example, when Mozart was my age, he would have been dead for two years.”
Each year this week comes up, I ask questions of myself: Would there be enough material in your life for somebody to write a script about it that a movie studio would buy? And is that really important? Kim Kardashian gets away with having insufficient material every day and she never seems too broken up about it.
And the questions inevitably turn to, well, what are you going to do next year, the answer to which is that much of next year is months from now and how the heck should I know?
At this point the self-actualization types among you are thinking something out of Nike commercials: Why not just “do it?” You want to accomplish something, then go out and try!
New jobs, new relationships, the best-laid-plans folks say they willed those situations into being. I don’t believe in pure fate, but neither do I believe that humans have complete control over their lives, either.
We can put ourselves in a better position for our fondest wishes to come true, of course. You probably aren’t going to be driving a Mercedes-Benz someday if you don’t at some point find yourself in some proximity to a dealership.
But what we do with our lives so often has less to do with either best-laid plans or serendipity and more to do with situations that simply present themselves. How we respond to them is what is really under our control.
I look at it like the brass ring on an old carousel. It’s scary and not easy to reach out to one while life is propelling you forward at a fast pace. But you at least know the ring is there. If you miss the first time around, you’ll know it’s coming up again at some point. And if you never get a brass ring, well, at least you’ve had a fun ride.
Only Machiavelli believed that the end justified the means. Life is the journey more than the destination. So is that old almanac admonition misdirected, in that it’s not what I have done, but what I have tried to do? Is there some satisfaction in having had a fun, though ringless, ride?
And so, as another year begins, what are your brass rings? Do you find yourself, as I often do, a regular customer at the carousel ticket booth, trying for another shot at that ring? To have that great ride, don’t you need to keep being motivated to get that ring, that job, that relationship, that whatever, enough to keep getting on that painted horse, again and again?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that in this finite life we’re given, we are each given certain gifts, certain abilities. The combination of talents is unique to each person, although many of us share many of the same gifts. Perhaps the almanac question is asked on each person’s own individual scale, rather than a universal standard that some of us reach and some of us don’t.
So if the question haunts you from now on, as it does me, maybe it’s best for us to look at who we are, what we can be with what we have to offer, and whether we have embraced those happenstance opportunities with well-thought-out plans and application of our own set of strengths.
It may well not be whether we did what others did with the last 12 months, but whether we did what we were supposed to do. If we did what we were supposed to do, that the year is gone will not be a lament, but rather a milestone on a path that will one day have been a great ride, indeed.
Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at eastvalleytribune.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.