‘Life to the Hilt’: Some Advice for the Younger Set

February 23, 2021 Updated: February 23, 2021

In a few days, I will turn threescore years and 10, or in modern parlance: I’ll be 70 years old.

Man, that age sounds rickety to me.

After poking around online yesterday, I discovered a site featuring a “life expectancy calculator” that estimates how much longer I’ll still be drinking coffee every morning. One of the questions asked of me was inadequate, and I fudged on another, but according to this life expectancy site, I will likely be sipping my cup of Joe for another 19 years. Knock off six years for my tomfoolery on the site, and I still have a way to go.

Good news? Bad news? I suppose that will depend on the state of my health.

All I can say for certain is that turning 70 seems impossible to me, a huge chunk of days, weeks, and months. Our republic is 245 years old, which means I’ve breathed air and walked the earth for more than a quarter of that time.

And what a trip it’s been.

It Goes by Fast

I was born during the Korean War, when Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House. Since then, Americans have fought a dozen or more wars, won the Cold War, put men on the moon, gave untold billions of dollars in aid to the rest of the world, and created an economy never before seen in world history.

During that time, our nation has undergone immense changes. When I was in elementary school, for example, some farmers were still cropping tobacco with mules and sleds in Boonville, North Carolina; polio ravaged the nation before Jonas Salk found a vaccine to prevent it; schools were segregated; and kids still roamed the neighborhood and the town unaccompanied by grownups.

Those days are long gone, but I remember so much of what happened along the way since then, bits and pieces, some vivid reminiscences, some dim with the shadows of time. So many memories, so many faces and names, so much joy and sorrow. An example: I recall taking my future wife into my arms on the Boston Common in the summer of 1976, the Bicentennial Year, and kissing her, and the guys who passed by letting out catcalls and whistles. I remember finding her 28 years later dying on the floor of our bedroom, with my two sons on either side of her, and now I look at all those months and days we spent together, and they seem to have passed like a snap of the fingers.

Young people—and by young people, I mean anyone half my age or less—odds are the minutes, hours, days, and years of your lives will fly by as well. At some point in the future, you’ll be as I am today, looking back into the recesses of time and wondering how everything went by so quickly.

Here are some bits of advice that may help you squeeze as much as possible from the time given to you on this earth.

Negative Examples

First up are some of my regrets, warnings of what to avoid.

Often in my younger years, both busyness and business occupied me, blinding me to the beauty of a sunset, the magic of falling snow, and the joy behind a child’s smile. Writing those words here has blurred my eyes with tears of contrition for failing to love and appreciate this whirling globe and those around me as they deserved. These days, I do pause to savor special moments, to enjoy conversing with a friend or watching a grandchild at play with Legos, but why on earth did it take me so long to immerse myself in these pleasures?

A piece of advice: Don’t let the sweep of your schedule hide the beauty that lies all around you.

In addition, I regret harming people, several in small ways, and a few so deeply I feel shame every time I recollect the pain I caused them. Some of these people I wounded are now either dead or have cut me off with no chance of making amends.

Second piece of advice from this old guy: Seek peace and make amends with others while you still have the opportunity.

Appreciate the Gifts

Having reached threescore and 10 years, I look back with enormous gratitude at some of the blessings bestowed on me by life.

My marriage was one of those blessings. Often, as is the case with most marriages, Kris and I had our good and our bad seasons of love, but we stayed true to our vows and to each other. After her sudden death, I regretted so many words I’d left unsaid to her, wishing, again and again, that she’d better known what she meant to me. Some 14 years later, one of her dearest friends told me, “I hope you know this, but you were the love of her life.”

Her comment stunned me, brought tears to my eyes, and bestowed an enormous sense of peace.

Our children were also wonderful gifts. All four of them have amazed me by their diligence, their religious faith, and their parenting skills. Though they participated in various co-ops and entered into the dual enrollment program at community colleges, we homeschooled them from kindergarten through high school. It wasn’t always easy or enjoyable—they often disliked being so different from their peers—but today all of them recognize the benefits of that education.

For them, I am grateful beyond words.

Finally, the religious faith I gave to them, and to myself, is another good I hadn’t really foreseen earlier in my life. My conversion at age 40 to Catholicism set my children off on this same path, and later my wife, and all of them today live and practice their faith, and are passing it along to their children.

The lesson here? Recognize and cherish the boons that life brings you.

Live to the Hilt

Live to the hilt means to live as fully as possible, to see as deeply as possible into reality. The image is gruesome in its origins, as it stems from a sword or a dagger thrust into an enemy to the hilt, the cross piece on the handle of the weapon. To the hilt now means simply entering into some enterprise—business, marriage, or life—and engaging it as deeply, fully, and enthusiastically as possible.

In Mark Helprin’s “A Soldier of the Great War,” a dying woman, Ariane, leaves a note for her husband. I’ve read the novel twice, and have given away five or six copies to young men of my acquaintance, yet Ariane’s note still puzzles me, though as I have grown older, I have come to realize its beauty and truth:

“As long as you have life and breath, believe. Believe for those who cannot. Believe even if you have stopped believing. Believe for the sake of the dead, for love, to keep your heart beating, believe. Never give up, never despair, let no mystery confound you into the conclusion that mystery cannot be yours.”

To me, Ariane is speaking of God—her note comes up in a discussion of theology—and other readers may well detect a different meaning. But when she speaks of mystery, I believe she means the mysteries surrounding us, embedded in the very essence of what it means to be a human being, and that we can discover those mysteries by embracing life.

An example: We look at a loved one—a wife, a child, an uncle, a friend—yet how rarely we see them. Their hearts and souls shine like angels, but we see only flesh, nerve, blood, and bone.

I wish now I’d had eyes that could see truly when I was younger, that could have pierced the shadows and seen the light in other human beings, particularly in those I loved.

I’ll keep working on this one and encourage readers to do the same.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels—“Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.