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Now's the Time to Say You're Sorry

Why you should seize the opportunity to make amends — and how to get started

Man in his 50's elbow against window, thinking

— Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/cultura/Corbis

By the time we reach midlife, most of us have accumulated a good deal of unfinished business. Even when we're not conscious of them, those lingering grudges, careless snubs, unkept promises and fractured relationships can weigh us down. These negative feelings can keep us from seeing the best parts of ourselves and inhibit us from acting on the opportunities we all get, each and every day, to be loving, generous and kind.

Fortunately, it's never too late to make amends. In fact, it turns out that the over-50 stage of life may be the best one for righting past wrongs. Consider:

• We see the big picture. By now, most of us have gained the distance and perspective to acknowledge our youthful misdeeds and to forgive other people for hurting us. For years I blamed my father for driving me too hard in sports when I was a kid, so I treated him badly. Once I became a father myself, I could see how his harsh words had been his way of toughening me up, and also of expressing his love. 

• Older means wiser. According to recent brain research, our ability to make wise and fair judgments reaches an apex during our middle years, when our cognitive abilities are still strong and our decisions on how to think and act are informed by decades of real-life experience. For nearly 40 years, I harbored a grudge against a boy who had bullied me in high school. When I reached my 50s I could see how his continued presence in my nightmares disturbed my sleep and self-confidence, an observation that muted my desire for revenge.

We’re more empathetic. With more personal experience to draw from, we are better able to understand other people and put ourselves cognitively and emotionally in their shoes. Witness how my midlife heart was able to soften toward both my father and the childhood bully. 

• Time is running out. Midlife may be the last opportunity we have to make sincere and direct amends to older friends and relatives. I remember the remorse I felt when I stood at the grave of my grandmother, whose funeral I had missed 15 years earlier because I had been too busy to attend. How much more satisfying would it have been (for her and for me) if I had told her how much she meant to me before she had Alzheimer's and died? With midlife comes a new urgency. The time to resolve your differences, express your gratitude and tell your loved ones what they mean to you is now, while they are still alive and able to appreciate these actions.

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