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.
• We need to consider legacy. In midlife, we begin thinking about the values and memories we want to bequeath our children and grandchildren. By breaking the cycle of anger and recrimination that divides too many families and communities, you can give your children and grandchildren the gift of their own fresh start.
But how do you begin? The first step is to think carefully about your regrets — what they are, why you feel badly about them, what you could have done differently.
I started by compiling a list of the people I had wronged in various ways — for instance, the college buddy from whom I had borrowed $600 that I never paid back. In each case I asked myself what had led me to hurt or offend the other person. I tried as best as I could to put myself in the other people's shoes: How had I made them feel? What could I do to take the sting out of their hurt and make our relationship whole again?
I figured out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to approach each person. For some, it made sense to get right to the crux of the matter. For others, it seemed better just to spend time together.
And then it was time for the biggest, sometimes scariest step — the one that matters most: I would reach out to the person, by phone, e-mail or letter, with a sincere and open heart and with the humility that comes with a lifetime of ups and downs.
Trust me: This is one step you will never regret.
Lee Kravitz is a journalist who was editor-in-chief of the Sunday newspaper magazine Parade and a former editorial director at Scholastic, Inc. You can find out more about his year-long journey to make amends on his website.