I’m soon to be attending my 40th high school reunion, and found myself feeling a bit down. Forty years is a long time, and I’m sure that anyone else of similar age knows that at this point, it’s easy to think that our best days are behind us. We look back at the promise that life seemed to hold back in high school, and wonder how the years went by so quickly. No matter how successful any of us have been, we can’t help but lament the dreams that didn’t turn out. I was in the throes of such lament when I received a short e-mail from a friend who had just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. No, it didn’t inspire me to run off and try the hike myself. But in the course of discussing what the trip meant to him, he made an off-hand comment about hoping “to have 30 to 40 years left on this planet.” That’s what got me thinking…
I spend most of my time writing books, and I like to think that what helps me stand out from the crowd is a “big picture” approach, in which I try to help readers focus less on details and more on the larger meaning of things. For example, I write (with three co-authors) an astronomy textbook called The Cosmic Perspective, a title chosen to emphasize how the study of the universe changes our perspective on ourselves and our planet, and one of my books on math is called Math for Life, to emphasize how thinking about numbers and data can change the way you live your life. So my friend’s comment made me wonder if I had been missing something in my melancholy thoughts about my upcoming reunion.
I started with the math. People are living longer and longer, and if you follow the news about rapid advances in treating major killers like heart disease and cancer, it’s not at all unrealistic to think that many of us attending our 40th high school reunions still have another 40 or more years of life ahead.
The math led to perspective: Our adult lives – the lives in which we are free to make our own choices and plan our own futures – begin at about the time that high school ends. So as we reach a 40th reunion, there’s a pretty good chance that this event marks only the halfway point of our adult lives. In that sense, we might well have enough time to live an entire “second life.”
Of course, nothing is guaranteed even in your “first life,” let alone in a second. Still, a lot of us will live long enough to have a full second life, and that means we should be prepared. Just as we did back in high school, we need to look forward rather than backward, and create new dreams of what we might do with the many years that are hopefully still to come.
The possibilities are astounding, because in principle your “second life” offers the opportunity to achieve anything that anyone else has ever done in their first 40 years out of high school. Do you want to help cure cancer? You have plenty of time to go to college and graduate school, and start working in biomedical research. Do you want to provide job opportunities in your community? Then there’s no better time than now to start a new business. Want to spread American ideals and democracy around the world? Join the Peace Corps and see where that leads. Concerned about unequal opportunities here at home? Become a teacher, or a volunteer at your local school, or a Big Brother or Sister, and help children of every background learn so that they can achieve their own dreams.
Most important of all, I hope you’ll think deeply about what it means to have a chance at a second life on this planet. For me, this is where the cosmic perspective comes in. We may be physically insignificant as we live out lives that last for only a cosmic blink of the eye, on one tiny blue world, orbiting one ordinary star, in a universe filled with stars that are as numerous as the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. But we have great power in our minds. The universe may be vast, but it only knows it exists because intelligent beings like us have figured it out.
This may seem an esoteric thought, but it has concrete consequences. Einstein discovered that space and time are intertwined in a way that gives our lives permanence, because every action we ever take becomes etched into the fabric of the universe. So wherever you are in your life, whether reaching your 40th reunion like me, or long before or after that stage, take the opportunity to take stock. Look back and consider the piece of the universe that you have created in your life to date. Then turn and look forward, and decide what shape you’d like the rest of your piece of fabric to take. Come up with new dreams, and work to fulfill them. Your second life may or may not prove to be as long as your first, but it’s yours to create.
- For a quick, picture-book overview of what we know today about our place in the universe: I, Humanity (http://www.bigkidscience.com/books/i-humanity/); for an in-depth introduction to modern astronomy: The Cosmic Perspective (http://www.jeffreybennett.com/books/the-cosmic-perspective/)
- For an introduction to Einstein’s ideas and how they give a sense of permanence to everything we do in our lives: What is Relativity? An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas and Why They Matter (http://www.bigkidscience.com/books/what-is-relativity/)
- To learn about one key issue that will affect all of our futures, and what you can do about it: A Global Warming Primer: Answering Your Questions About the Science, the Consequences, and the Solutions (http://www.globalwarmingprimer.com/the-book/)
- A web site with suggestions for other steps to securing the future for ourselves and our children and grandchildren: http://contractwiththefuture.org