Jackie Gingrich Cushman

"What is the meaning of life?" my middle school daughter asked me recently as we were lying on her bed one evening. After a few minutes of contemplation, knowing that the answer was not about acquisition of money, fame or power, and that material items might provide ease in life, but not meaning, I responded that it is "to experience and then to allow God's Grace to shine through you to others."

It seemed to satisfy her at the time, but has left me a bit uneasy and questioning. This, combined with my 45th birthday this week has left me more than a bit introspective. At 45, it's official: I can no longer call myself "young." I'm not yet old. I fall begrudgingly into what is termed middle age. There has been no defining moment in my life since the birth of my second child. Instead, one day slips into the next.

With a child in middle school, while I am hitting middle age, the questions she asks seem to compound the ones that I can't answer. Watching her rapid growth and development makes me long for those days of rapid growth, as well. Instead of rapid growth, this period of my life seems to be defined more by plodding rather than springing forward.

Last month, New York Times' columnist David Brooks asked those over 70 "to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way. You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories -- career, family, faith, community and self-knowledge -- and give yourself a grade in each area."

While I have 25 years to go to make the official cut, I'm going to provide what I hope will be my midlife report (if I am so blessed to live to 90).

What have I done well so far? The best thing that I have done so far is to have said yes to my husband Jimmy, when he asked me to marry him. Deciding who you marry is, to me, the most important decision you will ever make in your life, especially if you are lucky enough to have children (we have two).

Your spouse will have more influence and effect on your life than your parents, your children, your boss, coworkers, friends or anyone else. A good marriage can provide you with a safe harbor during storms and a solid foundation from which to grow.

What have I not done well? Well, there are so many things. I'm still easily overwhelmed by clutter, constantly battling it in the house, never winning, but often frustrated. Watching my middle-schooler begin to develop executive functions of planning time, organizing and prioritization, I realize that I need a remedial course in these areas, as well. My tone is often sharper and harder than I intend, and to make matters worse, many times, I don't even notice.

In a desire to do great things, as well as do small things greatly, my high standards might be unattainable, leading to judgment of those found lacking, including most often myself.

I have just enough patience to know that this is an area that requires much more development. With two children, I am daily given the opportunity to become more patient. I often fail, but occasionally I am able to exhibit the Grace of God mentioned earlier.

My husband and I are both very involved in the community. The Atlanta History Center, Genesis Shelter: A New Life, The Trust for Public Land, The Atlanta Botanical Gardens, to name a few. We attempt to model for our children the importance of giving back.

We belong to a wonderful faith community. This is an area that has grown in importance and focus in the past few years. The attempt to allow God's Grace to shine through has led to more prayer, more study and more understanding of how far I have to go. That must be what God's grace is for -- accepting us and loving us, even though we are imperfect. Perfection would not need grace. I need grace.

As for grades in each area, well, I've always thought that self-grading was a waste of time. After all, who has the ability to separate from themselves enough to be unbiased? Certainly not me.

What I have learned so far in life is that it is a great, frustrating, fun adventure. And, with the grace of God, I hope to be able to give an updated report when I'm 70.


Jackie Gingrich Cushman

Jackie Gingrich Cushman is a speaker, syndicated columnist, socialpreneur, and author of "The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own," and co-author of “The 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours”.