Fifty years of wisdom for free, from a man who has lived them



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I just turned 50 and I don’t understand why one or two folks are expressing shock and horror. It is the most natural thing in the world: I have teenage children in high school, I have been a journalist for more than 20 years and my head is so full of stuff that I am storing some of it in my (progressively weak) legs.

You can’t be all that and 26 years old for crying out loud. People should, instead, be asking me, “What have you learnt — or read — in those 50 years, old man?” And I’ll tell you; I’ll give you a taster. Here the 10 things I have learnt, or read somewhere I can’t remember, in those years.

Love is the most amazing thing in the universe. Whether it is romantic love, smokier than all the “peaty” produce of the island of Islay poured together, when two souls fuse to create a harmony and an excitement that reverberates across the galaxies, or the more gentle feelings of a grandparent towards a grandchild, love is the best feeling. In its experience, I believe, we catch a glimpse, albeit from a distance, of God.

Every human being has an obligation to try and find, and once found, keep love.

Be serious about what you have elected to spend your life on. If you have chosen — or been forced by circumstances — to do something as your contribution to this world, be good at it, be the best at it.

Life is precious, the most expensive commodity ever. Don’t waste it, put it to the best use. It doesn’t really matter what you do; just do it with total commitment and passion.

Play your own game, run your own race. Many people waste much time and put themselves through so much stress trying to be unlike, like or better than others. Trust me, you will be a lot happier if you spend your time doing stuff that makes you happy.

It’s never about the money, really. I am not a disciple of poverty and I have worked my hands to the bone to make sure that I can feed myself and send my children to school. But the wanton, mindless, murderous greed that seizes many of us and drives us to corruption, killing, poisoning and betraying our fellow man does not produce peace, happiness or satisfaction. It just makes the hole in the heart bigger.

Friends are very important. I was born and bred to be autonomous, like all boys of my generation from my community. We were trained to rely on one another and be loyal and told that the members of your age-set are your brothers.

But the most important lesson was that every man is a DC — a colonial district commissioner — all wise, all powerful, all aloof and removed from the rest of (weak) humanity. And so I tried for many years to live my life my own self-reliant way. Until I experienced true, caring friendship and I realised that we were not created to live alone.

Children are lovely. I lecture my wife all the time that our children are not the most important thing in our lives.

But I must confess that they are a close second. In children we find an outlet for our unconditional love, of sheer joy and appreciation and, often, of the most excruciating pain too. Even when we are away from them, it’s like there an invisible cable linking us to them. Children have been sent by God to teach us how to love and how to be human.

Get a dog. When they lick your face, a dog’s warm, sloppy tongue is the most disgusting thing. But there is a never a truer friend, a better creator of memories, or more outrageously and unexpectedly funny companion.

The most peaceful moments I can remember were with Pops, the dog my neighbours, the pox on them, poisoned. We would sit quietly, not doing anything, late at night. I still remember how thunder and lightning would scare him senseless or how he would be trying to sleep and would have nightmares and yelp himself awake.

I remember how Cloey, a complex, disturbed Jack Russel terrier, had difficulties showing affection. And then she got four puppies and had to be a mum.

Life is not like swimming with sharks. Life is like swimming with sharks and crocodiles. The capacity for human beings to do wrong, to be sneaky and evil, always surprises me. The last thing you want to do is walk around wearing your heart on your sleeve, presenting your undefended stomach to every passing crocodile.

It is not enough to be a dog-loving hippie; you also have to be a toughie. Be kind, humble, loving but careful, and be prepared to be hard when it’s called for.

Live, don’t exist. It’s so easy to go through life in a hurried, stressed rush, like a diner who eats too quickly without tasting the feast. It pays to experience life, to cancel your appointments occasionally and lie on the sofa, watching episode after episode of Game of Thrones. Indulge your tastes, within reason, treat yourself well.

For heaven’s sake, don’t be ignorant. Living life without knowledge and information is like trying to eat food without a spoon. History, politics, philosophy, literature, the sciences — all this knowledge is the salt with which life is eaten, the spice that enriches our experiences. If you visit the Great Wall of China, you will experience its marvels better if you have an idea of what it took to build it.

And there you have it: 50 years of wisdom in 950 words.


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