Most of the focus around New Year's Eve, and the first few days of each new year, is on the joy of renewal; of all the wonderful things we dream of coming true in a future that is magically reborn, wiping clean all the regretful things that have come before. Despite the nostalgic lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne," the party hats and champagne are a celebration not of a wistful past, but of new beginnings and possibilities. Of all the new dreams and resolutions we will, or might, achieve in the time still to come.
And yet, much as we might wish to avert our eyes from this awkward bit of the picture, the traditional celebration of the turn of the year isn't just about new beginnings. The classic representation of New Year's Eve, after all, is a duo: Old Father Time along with the Baby New Year. We tend to dismiss the old man quickly, launching him out the door with the old calendar and yesterday's holiday wrappings so we can focus on the youngster with whom we more readily and happily identify. But watching a couple of performances over the holiday weekend, I was reminded that there is value in the old man's lesson, as well.
On New Year's Eve, I turned on the television to watch the "ball" drop in New York's Times Square and stumbled on the image of a much-diminished Dick Clark gamely trying to fill his role as the emcee of the celebration despite having suffered a debilitating stroke. It was painful to watch. I understand Clark wanting to reclaim the role and life he had before his illness; my mother suffered a serious stroke a couple of years ago and I watched her fight the same battle in the months that followed. Age and health failures are thieves that steal life and competency away heartlessly, unfairly and sometimes without warning. But it was still painful to watch.
Two days later, I watched a much-diminished Brett Favre put in a sideline, and most likely final, appearance as a professional football quarterback. I say "most likely" because although Favre officially announced his retirement from pro ball on Sunday night, he's reversed that decision more than once before. But this time, watching him stumble increasingly over the course of the season, few viewers had any doubt that the once-great QB, who had taken the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl twice and set the NFL record for the longest consecutive streak of game starts (321), was finished. Had been finished, in reality, for some time before he actually conceded defeat. Which was painful to watch, as well.
A few years ago, a friend who was closing in on age 60 told me he'd figured out that the real challenge in life was learning to let go. That's not the only struggle, of course, but it's certainly one of the big ones—especially in the years following 40. Letting go of anything—childhood, baggage, grudges, anger, failure, friends, lovers, loved ones, or just the past in general—is never an easy thing. But letting go of who you used to be, when you really loved being that person, falls into the double-black-diamond level of life challenges.
In 2002, the writer and essayist Roger Rosenblatt gave a beautifully poignant description
of that struggle in talking about the great historian William Manchester on an episode of PBS's News Hour
. Manchester had suffered two strokes and, subsequently, had lost the ability to find and organize the words necessary to finish his biography of Winston Churchill.
Manchester's face, Rosenblatt said, showed "all the bewildered agony of someone realizing that he cannot do what he was born to do."
We build identities over years and decades. Once, we were our ancestry. Here in the New World of America, we are judged more on what we do than who our parents were. And if we're lucky, we manage to find something to do that we feel, on some level, we were "born" to do. That's the great and wonderful part. Especially if being a natural at something leads to high levels of success or notability in that field, as it often does.
Of course, pursuing something you're so passionate about that you not only excel at it but feel it was something you were born to do makes that activity far more central to both your life and your identity. So what do you do when you edge closer to Father Time than the possibility-filled infant year? When enough years pass that the top of the bell curve slips through your grasp and you find yourself sliding down the far side? When you're past your prime, or not physically or mentally able to do or be what people recognized you for anymore? Who are you, then?
The entertainer and comedian Carol Burnett once said she ended her variety show while it was still getting high ratings—a show that gave her a level of fame and success she never again equalled—because she wanted to exit before the hostess started turning out the lights and asking her to leave. If only Elvis could have had that strength and self-control!
There are also any number of people, famous and not, who have mastered the art of reinventing themselves, over and over again, as their age and capacities and knowledge changed. John W. Gardner, who was the Secretary of Health Education and Welfare under President Johnson and went on after that to found Common Cause before lecturing at Stanford University, lived until the age of 89. And he bragged about taking a new career job after his 76th birthday.
Some of those people take on new careers in completely different fields (former NBA basketball player Kevin Johnson is now the mayor of Sacramento, CA), while others find different ways to contribute in their field of choice, even after their "best" or starring years have passed. Perhaps Favre could coach, or become a commentator, and perhaps Clark could provide valuable input to productions behind the camera. It's not the same as being the out-front star, of course, or nailing a 70-yard pass to win a game that hangs in the balance. But to make that switch first requires a clear and courageous acknowledgment that all things pass, grow old, and need to be let go of, eventually. Of one's own aging, and passing into those who have, instead of those who still will. It requires, in other words, a willingness to look Father Time in the eye and recognize and find peace with a part of ourselves in that image, as well as an optimistic willingness to set out and explore what still might lie ahead. Adventure, after all, can be found in any stage of life, right up through the end.
For years, I've looked at the image of Father Time and the Baby New Year and thought only of its basic interpretation: the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new. But after watching Dick Clark and Brett Favre's performances, it occurred to me that the iconic New Year's image might also be a reminder of the grace and possibility that come from acknowledging not only the renewal of life in the new year, but also the passage of time in the old. From recognizing what time it is, and moving on to whatever lies next before the party gets stale, or the hostess shows you the door.