On midlife and vulnerability in a brave new world

“A road less traveled and a life less led. The path between the spirit and the voice in your head.” Brown Bird 

Midlife crisis. The very words evoke images of a man with thinning hair and maybe even a toupee, dashing off to get a fancy sports car and perhaps displacing his partner of many years for a younger model while he goes off in search of that last big buzz before he hits the downward slope. While that image is based in someone’s reality, increasingly I find for myself and others in my sphere, that midlife is the place where life corrections occur. Where the life that has been led is evaluated and reevaluated, a place where dreams and reality are laid down and the search for inner consensus begins. A place where you hold to the inner energy of youth but come face to face with the physical manifestations that present somewhere after forty that are clearly not the domain of the very young. The magically expanding waistline and heat surges anyone?

The search for self never stops, as I am coming to learn; it’s just that no longer is my life guided by a frantic to-do list but more the refinement of self that aligns with my emotional, mental and spiritual self.  The quest to be true to my inner guide and not yield to the pressures of the outside world.

Yet the search for self at the stage in life when our society says we are supposed to have it all together is fraught with fear. Fear of the unknown and the fear of making oneself vulnerable to others while still searching for that inner child who knows happiness but at times has been replaced by the heaviness of the adult life.

As our lives increasingly are no longer private affairs thanks to technological advances, it means that our decisions are open to scrutiny from all corners. The openness of modern life and the ways in which we live and share our lives today only work to increase the level of tension and fear as we find ourselves struggling with the images we project in those snippets we share with friends and strangers and our lived reality.

A recent comment left here highlighted for me just how real that disconnect is at times.

“I hope that your dad feels better soon. I’m responding to your post regarding your lack of local friends. The comments are closed, so that’s why I’m leaving one here. I’m someone who’s reached out to you several times, yet you never gave me a chance. Although I’m intelligent and we have things in common, you never even give me half an hour to hangout.

You told me you would, but when warmer weather finally arrived, you couldn’t commit to any time. Ironically, you repeatedly said how bored you were on Twitter during last summer. I can only surmise, that others have also tried to connect with you. If you complain about not having companionship, you have to ask yourself: “Why am I turning down possible new friends?” You have to be willing to try too, and not expect people to continuously “court” you.”

I am going to be honest and say that this comment coming when it did hurt me. It hurt me because it reminded me that that there is a cost to opening up and opening up in public. When we read the words of others, the truth is we aren’t always seeing the entire picture. As a person who plays with words, I am fairly mindful of the words that I use in this space and other spaces, sometimes my words are very clear and sometimes they are intentionally vague enough as to leave interpretation up to the individual reader.

The commenter made valid points, but what they don’t know is that in the past two years this space has grown enough that I am bombarded with requests to hang out, speak to groups, support projects, etc. (at this moment there are over 5,000 emails in the BGIM email account from July with 90% of those being requests of some sort) Throw in the occasional stalker-type messages, the real-life stalker of a few years ago and just the messiness of personal life as well as the intensity of my professional life and well…shit happens.

I don’t share this story to dogpile on the commenter but rather to explain how I think any time we open ourselves up, be it with our inner circle, partner, friends or however we lay ourselves bare, we make ourselves open to criticism and frankly we make ourselves vulnerable. To be vulnerable can be one of the scariest fucking feelings ever because we don’t know what the outcome will be yet at midlife as we settle into our true selves, that vulnerability starts to look a little less scary. I don’t think we’ll ever not have that twitchy stomach moment yet it becomes easier to let it go.

It’s that knowledge that allows us us to let go of that which binds and maybe even confines at times. It’s how people let go of the seemingly happy marriage, the good job and all that seems just perfect yet no longer feeds and nourishes our spirit.

Once upon a time I danced around the fringes of vulnerability but I know now that I cannot fully be who I am meant to be without some level of vulnerability whether it is in this space or other areas of my life.  Instead I see vulnerability as the gift of growing a little less younger and maybe just even a little wise. So as I walk through the flames of life managing the many transitions that I face, I know occasionally I might get spanked for the vulnerable moments but I embrace them as part of the never ending process of change and even refinement of self. How do you handle the vulnerable and uncomfortable moments?
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The cosmic shifts of the 40’s or the ballad of middle age

These are strange times that we are living in; if one were to follow the narratives carried out in popular media it would be easy to assume that by the time one reaches their 40’s they have figured out the meaning of life and they are flying high and filled with confidence. Rarely do I see in depth narratives about the very real angst that some of us face in our 40’s and for the longest time, I wondered perhaps I was all alone in the jungle of my head wondering who the hell am I?

Recently I have found myself having conversations with other forty something year olds and realized that many of us are grappling with the same issues.  To follow passion and bliss, to stick with what is safe and soul draining, to shed our coats that no longer fit comfortably or to suck it all up.

In today’s world the “midlife” crisis is mainly a relic of times long past since for many, the 40’s are no longer seen as “middle aged” but yet an extension of our 30’s. While we may be able to change the definitions and today’s forty something year old most certainly looks better than the forty something year old of long ago, it doesn’t change the reality that in our 40’s, life does start to shift and when it does, damn it…it can spin out of control like a loop to loop sky-ride shaking and rattling our very beings.

For starters, once you hit your 40’s, the reality of our time on this dusty rock being finite starts to become real. It seems to be the age when people start checking out and no matter how much we hate it, death becomes real. It’s also the age when you start noticing in the obituaries that there are other people in their 40’s…except they are no more, they are dead and when you read the obituary of someone who is a peer, it strikes a tiny note of fear in your heart. It’s also the place in life where we often start to see changes in our own parental units if they are still alive and we become aware of their mortality which makes us aware of our own mortality. I come from a family of high achievers in this regard since my mother punched out in her 50’s when I barely into my 30’s thus leaving me with only one parental unit. You best believe, I keep tabs on my Pops, if a day goes by and he hasn’t sent me his daily text, I am calling him. I am not ready to be parent-less yet despite the fact that I am a grown up with a grown up kid. As a fifty something year old friend told me when my mom passed away, when your parents die, it’s a game changer. That’s real.

A forty something year old body still looks good and functions well, don’t put us out to pasture just yet but damn it, my body now requires intentional care and TLC. I am almost at the point of giving up my beloved wine because wine just doesn’t love me like it once did. I asked a few pals about this and they all told me “welcome to the club”…I don’t like this club. Stay up late, drink too much wine and feel like shit. Speaking of feeling like shit, how come the very foods that you once could shovel down, no longer feel as good. Too much grease, meat, sugar and carbs now make me feel like a human blob. Eating healthy in your 40’s seems to be less about notions of maintaining a certain body image and more about avoiding discomfort and heartburn. How come no one told me about this?

Never mind the other bodily changes that start happening, ladies of a certain age you know what I am talking about. I am sorry but Flo’s punctuality at this stage in life is not welcomed. In fact Flo, you really are a pain in the ass at this stage of life and you know why. But I have it on authority from friends in their 50’s and 60’s that I shouldn’t wish you completely gone just yet…not sure why. You are an annoyance!

There are the other shifts that start to take place, the ones that leave us wondering are we happy? By our 40’s, many of us have been in our careers for a number of years, careers we most likely prepped for in our 20’s. Careers that sometimes are no longer the joy that we once envisioned them to be, maybe we have reached the apex of our professional lives which doesn’t sound bad until you realize that change in your 40’s isn’t quite what it was in your 20’s. You have the house, the kids, the partner, the student loan debt, an assortment of other responsibilities and to be frank, none of those things will sit patiently while you figure out which parachute will work best.

This of course leads me to our personal relationships, there is a reason your pals start splitting up in their 40’s and it’s not nearly as tragic as society would have us to believe. Our 40’s seem to be the place where we start assessing and reassessing our lives and sometimes we have to face the fact that the partners and people we have allowed in our lives no longer fit us. The thing about the 40’s that I am learning as I wing my way through this is that for the first time in my life I am starting to feel unencumbered to make decisions about my life that are not influenced by anyone else, decisions born out of a few decades of being an adult and living with the highs and lows of adulthood.

I am starting to think the 40’s are the place where we shed our skin and start to claim the life that we want and that the real crisis comes from the fact that we have to balance our wants, needs and desires with the slew of responsibilities and people we have accumulated in the previous decades. It’s the place where we look mortality in the eye and realize that our time is finite and that now is good time to start seeking what we need and that is what creates the conflict. Because as much as we want what we want, we can’t always make that happen or we can’t do so without going nuclear in our lives. Some of us do hit the nuclear option like Sandra Tsinh Loh in ‘The Madwoman in the Volvo’ where she shares her very real midlife crisis which involved an affair that led to the demise of her stable and good marriage of almost two decades. The affair partner turned out to be the partner she truly needed yet to get to that place it involved a lot of ugliness. I suspect most of us aren’t quite ready to go that route yet sometimes our insistence in wearing a coat that no longer fits comfortably is problematic.

The stakes feel higher at this stage of life which I suspect is part of the crisis, we may not be old but we are also not young. Unsure about this, go spend some time hanging out with a few folks in their early 20’s…having a kid who is 22 reminds me regularly that while I may look youthful. I am not young.

I am at the beginning of this ride and while I suspect I will emerge as a better and stronger person, I know the ride will be rocky. I also suspect that having a few good souls in my life who I can talk openly with about this stuff also makes a difference. So if you are in your 40’s and feeling some cosmic shifts, it’s not you, it’s life and ultimately we will arrive at the next act in our lives wiser and brighter but not without a few battle scars.

Crisis is great for clarity

In the perfect world, nothing bad would ever happen to us, things would go “our” way and this ride we call life would be a Southern California commute sans the traffic. Sadly, life doesn’t work that way at all, sometimes unjust and unfair shit happens to the so-called “good” people and shit never sticks to the “bad” people.

It’s real easy when in the midst of a shit storm to focus on the inherent unfairness of life but the truth is that never feels good long term. It may feel good in that moment of intense frustration but for me, it just adds to the cloud of darkness that loves to find me in these moments and it’s all downhill from there.

However if there is one lesson that life has taught me, it’s that life’s unexpected crisises are the moments when clarity arrives. When we are forced to acknowledge that life isn’t what we want but that if we are wise and play the hand dealt to us, there is immense beauty despite the pain. Simple beauty found in the quiet spaces and the tender moments, moments when your child wakes up and greets you with a big snaggletooth smile. Moments when hugs come when you least expect them and most need them.

I am walking a tightrope as I balance the emotional with the practical, nothing like the “no” of a nameless bureaucrat to briefly send one over the edge in this new reality. Yet just as I was falling over in a fit of passive aggressive rage this morning, grace caught me by the cuff and pulled me back over. I can’t say that I won’t fall over that edge again because I am human but I can only hope that the hands of grace and mercy will continue to surround me unseen yet hovering over me.

Right now though in this moment, I am thankful for the clarity to separate the wheat from the chaff and to know what matters most. To lie down all that hinders me and keeps me locked in battle with my ego and pumped up on false pride…away with you for this moment. I know you will be back again soon but for now I sit present and in this moment.

 

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