It seems the Nobel judges and I have a bit in common. I’ve always viewed certain musicians as master poets. At the top of my list of lifelong favorites: Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and, of course, the inimitable Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan recently grabbed many headlines with the announcement that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature this year “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” (As of this writing, Dylan has still not responded to the Nobel Academy to acknowledge the honor.) At the same time, Dylan’s slightly older friend and musical peer Leonard Cohen has been making headlines of his own. At age 82, when most people of his generation are happy simply to have time to relax, Cohen is doing anything but settling down. Last week he released a new album, “You Want It Darker,” and in typical Cohen fashion, he hasn’t shied away from topics many choose to avoid. In the title track, he declares “Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” When asked recently if he was truly ready to die, his reply was this: “I may have exaggerated.” Classic.
In a recent interview in The New Yorker, Cohen discussed aging, and what it means to him on a very personal level:
“At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities and the benefits of it are incalculable.”
As is often the case, I agree wholeheartedly with the man. Aging is a great gift, and if we take the steps needed to “put our house in order,” we can appreciate our later years even more. Perhaps even ease oh-so-slowly into that moment when we are, in fact, ready to die. What does it mean exactly to put your house in order? As a financial planner, my mind immediately goes to money. If you plan well enough that you don’t have financial challenges when you’re older, you can free your mind up for the rest of the equation. (For more on planning for the financial burdens ahead, read my blog, Aging: 4 steps to walking a smoother path toward the inevitable.)
Money isn’t the only factor in that critical equation. Many believe essential work—something that engages your mind, your spirit, and even your soul—is vital. Cohen is an amazing example of someone who has continued to produce essential work as long as possible. Perhaps the lack of distractions in old age has helped him be so prolific. He says that, compared to other times in his life, the lack of distraction “enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity than when I had duties of making a living, being a husband, being a father… the only thing that mitigates against full production is just the condition of my body.”
If Cohen is any example, it seems that putting your house in order also includes deciding what you want to achieve in your last decade or two of life, and how to make it happen. We often think of artists as being the tortured ones—they struggle for years to achieve their goals, and even then they’re often not appreciated for the result. But Cohen has a passion that has kept his mind and his soul engaged his entire life. For the rest of us, it may take some introspection to discover what we want now that we finally have the time to achieve something new.
My good friend Sue Alpert discovered her own “second half of life” passion after she became a widow. Following her own experience, she dedicated her life to helping others prepare for the death of a spouse or other loved one. Her mission is to help others reduce the chaos that can swallow a new widow or widower whole by encouraging people to prepare for the business of loss. (You can take her quiz here to see how prepared you are for loss, and learn the proactive steps you can take to tackle important planning and organization before it’s too late.)
If you don’t have your financial house in order, now is the time to talk to a financial advisor and make it happen. And if you’re struggling to identify your own essential work—what you want and need to achieve in your second half of life—I recommend looking at the Halftime Institute, a program designed to help pursue significance later in life. Marc Freedman’s book, “Encore: Finding Work that Matters in the Second Half of Life,” is another inspiring resource. (To learn more about Marc Freedman and Encore, see my blog Inspirations: Finding Purpose in Your second Half of Life.) If you find what you’re seeking, I’d love to hear your story.
Leonard Cohen remains one of my heroes. I’ve already downloaded the new album on iTunes and I can’t wait to listen to every word. As for the new Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, he’s practically a youngster at 75. Time will tell how much this other great poet may teach us about aging in the years to come.