Life, you’re not meeting expectations

I’ve accomplished and experienced much in my life, things that countless others probably never will. I owned my own business for twenty-seven years, from the time I was eighteen years old. I once won a trip to Hawaii, and, another time, ten-thousand dollars on a lottery ticket. A nationally-renowned author personally selected something I wrote in a contest. I’ve watched a performance from the general manager’s box in the best opera house in the world, and stood on its stage. I’ve met three governors, numerous celebrities, and exchanged a personal gesture with the president of the United States. I built a fabulous house in the best neighborhood in town when I was 25, and owned a million-dollar property on Cape Cod. I’ve been on the radio and television, had my picture in a nation-wide newspaper, and an article written about me in a national magazine. I’ve had several brushes with death, but skirted them every time.

When I look back on some of these occurrences, I find it hard to believe they happened to me, an unassuming, introverted bumpkin from the cultural wasteland of Eastern Connecticut who grew up humbly and relatively unambitious. And yet, in spite of my good fortune, I can’t shake a nagging sense that life has failed to live up to my expectations. What kind of an ingrate am I?

Are my expectations unreasonable? Perhaps I measure a rewarding and successful life by some other criteria? To be sure, there have been undesirable occurrences as well: relationship attempts that never made it past limerence; the loss of pets, friendships, and my only sibling; a permanent disability in my left hand; the eventual loss of my house, business and fortune. Easy come, easy go. Everything is temporary anyway, right? My life’s former successes have been on a downward trajectory for years, and the roller coaster has few highs left. Pessimism has spiked as I’ve gotten older, and there’s not much genuine hopefulness left on the horizon. I look forward to little, save the simple, selfish and temporary pleasures of my favorite shows, music and food. My safe places. There may not be anything wrong with this except that I’m fifty-five, not seventy-five, and am already drawing the curtains. Have I experienced too much too early in life? Am I burned-out, jaded, cynical? Am I having a normal mid-life crisis? Can I even name what might make me happy, or dare hope for it if I could?

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I might wish for a relationship, but I decided a while back that I’m not cut out for one. All attempts have ended quickly, as I don’t seem to know how to not be so damned independent. I don’t know how to be part of another without losing myself. I don’t know how to trust. I’m too selfish. No one would tolerate me. Oh, there are a million reasons, and it’s always seemed easier to just avoid the whole emotional mess, lonely and unfulfilling as it may be.

Were I in the position I might wish to retire and spend time traveling the country. I used to travel a lot and have visited about twenty states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. I used to be much more adventurous. I used to dine out a lot, go to the theater, get together frequently with friends. I used to have friends. My excursions out of state and to concerts and operas in recent years have all been done alone (hey, I give myself credit for at least having some adventures, solo or not). I haven’t travelled outside New England in sixteen years. It’s been just as long since I’ve dated anyone. I’ve been stuck in a job for ten years that’s not right for me. I’m in both stasis and solitary confinement, a long-term comfort zone that’s not very comfortable. I’m not sure if I’m punishing or protecting myself, but it’s really no way to live.

I have some guesses about the reasons for my existential decline, for giving up early. Some of them are rooted in my unusual personality type, INTJ, which is rather rigid, narrow and unforgiving (of self and others). Suffice it to say that I used to feel like a success, and no longer do. When I was younger, my intelligence and good grades made me feel worthwhile. After I graduated, my business provided me with much of my identity and sense of self-worth, even if I failed miserably at love and relationships (common INTJ pitfalls). Now, working for others, I feel undervalued, insignificant and unfulfilled – a cog, a drone, a lockstep soldier with no individuality or creativity. My youth and boundless energy has turned grayer, fatter and more sedentary. I’m afraid to take risks. My trust is shaken. My outlook has gone from eternally hopeful to hopefully eternal (by that I mean I contemplate death and decline more often, something I rarely gave a thought to before). At some point I started feeling old and unsuccessful, unable to control my destiny and the vagaries of life. I don’t live up to my own expectations.

Is this how most “old” people feel, I wonder? Am I old? How am I going to come to terms with this stage of my life? How am I going to get out of this funk? Many people didn’t wake up this morning, and I’m having a decade-long pity party. So now I can also beat up on myself for being selfish and ungrateful (I’ve always had healthy doses of both. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy). If anyone reading this wants to slap some sense into me, I’m right there with you.

Any therapist would likely tell me that, to answer an earlier question, I am both punishing and protecting myself. My rigid isolationist exile protects me from others, and others from me. It’s safe and predictable. There is a limited range of feeling and emotion. Not having friends or significant others prevents loss and disappointment. But does it really? I’m disappointed now.

All I know is the clock is ticking, for all of us, and sitting on the bench is no way to live. As I write this I am reminded of a favorite movie from my youth, Dead Poets Society, which I used to strongly identify with. It’s about friendships. It’s about mentors. It’s about being inspired. It’s about coming out of one’s shell, about living and losing and seizing the day (carpe diem!) It features this quote from Thoreau in a particularly heart-wrenching scene that brings tears to my eyes even now:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

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Coping with old(er) age

Today I turned 48. Funny how as you get older, you’re always a bit shocked at just how long you’ve actually been around. Lordy! But many don’t feel their chronological age, including me – usually. So, to hell with it! I try to forget how “old” I am. I’m just me. I don’t need to prove my age in order to buy anything or enter anywhere (well, at least until Senior discounts), so why keep tabs on age? The only time I’m even mindful of it is when I’m passed over for promotion (or not hired to begin with), seeking to attract someone (as you age, character does this more than looks) or when I have to check off one of those age bracket boxes on demographic questions (which always seem to have a 44-49 box…. so I have another two years to go before I move up to a new box!).

A few years ago I was really having a hard time with middle age… you know, feeling worthless, past my prime, out to pasture, all those scenarios. But I’ve found there are benefits to being older, not the least of which is feeling more confident in who you are – knowing what makes you tick, operating from a more solid center. Not worrying so much about what others think. Being more tolerant of others who may not yet have the wisdom you do. Being a teacher, offering counsel. Feeling freer to express yourself without ridicule. And heck, I notice that those even older than me seem to have a better social network than I do…. Seniors know how to network and look out for each other. So there’s something to look forward to. I think I’d love gated community living.

So it’s not so bad. I’m still fine tuning things, but for the most part I’m increasingly content with my life. I’m discovering new things all the time (in music, literature, film… all of which I hold dear), and looking at things I thought I knew with new scrutiny. Learning never ends. I remember when I was going to the local community college there was a much older woman in class with me. I thought that was so cool. I never want to stop learning. There is so much to know and experience. But you can’t lose hope. That is the killer, and I’ve been there – especially when my life fell apart a few years ago. I lost my home, my business, my life’s savings, my only sister, and the normal use of my left hand. Hope was scarce at times.

But it eventually returned, first sporadically, then more steadily. It took time. It is more a state of mind than about circumstances. Rose Kennedy, who experienced so much tragedy in her life, said “Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?” Robert Bly offers that “where your wound is, that is where your genius will be.” Beethoven, who cruelly lost the one sense he so desperately needed, created his masterpiece (the Ninth Symphony) while totally deaf. Tchaikovsky did similarly in spite of massive self-doubt. Though his life lacked any satisfying romantic relationships, he composed the score of what is universally seen as the ultimate musical depiction of love (the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture). There is no killing the human spirit. As Jesse Jackson used to say, “Keep hope alive.” How? Focus your thoughts differently. Careful what you believe, as it will no doubt come true. We are walking, talking self-fulfilling prophecies. “According to your belief, so be it unto you.”

Books, music and films are great ways to snap yourself out of a funk, as is the company of an old friend. I recently met one for drinks and found it quite refreshing. Of course it can also be disquieting, as it can remind you of who you used to be, back when you originally knew them. But that’s OK. Everything you once were, and everything you will become, is a part of you now.

Neil Diamond, a man whose music has always had a direct line to my emotions, has a great new song that he performs at the end of his concerts (replacing the iconic and equally great “I am, I Said.”) It’s called “Hell Yeah,” and is basically his reflection on his long life in the spotlight, and his firm contentment with its quality, in spite of disappointments. “I loved it all…. this crazy life around me/it confuses and confounds me, but it’s all the life I’ve got until I die… time is all we’ll ever need, but it’s gotta have a meaning/you be careful how its spent, cause it isn’t gonna last…. if they ask you when I’m gone, was it everything he wanted, when he had to travel on, did he know he’d be missed? you can tell them this: Hell Yeah he did. He saw it all. He walked the line, never had to crawl. He cried a bit, but not for long, hell yeah he found the life that he was after, filled it up with love and laughter, finally got it right and made it fit, hell yeah he did.” (there’s a great live performance of this song on my main page here).

Who could ask for anything more? Stay hopeful…….