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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Confessions of a modern anachronism

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anachronism: a thing belonging to a time other than the one in which it exists

I’ve been reminded recently of an episode of the original Twilight Zone (“Once Upon a Time”), where a man from 1890 is transported by time machine to 1960, a jump of 70 years into the future. The man, played by Buster Keaton, is horrified by the incessant noise and dizzying pace of life in his new surroundings. He simply cannot tolerate it. I’m beginning to know how he feels.

While our hapless time traveler’s jarring experience is largely the result of a sudden and drastic change to his circumstances, this same process happens to all of us – just much more insidiously, like a steady drip to the forehead. The world changes slowly around us, and these changes reach a point when, just like our Twilight Zone friend, we find ourselves in an environment where we really don’t belong.  The older we get, the more we resent having to continually adapt to things and situations to which we are not accustomed, and for which we don’t much care. We want things to be the way they’ve always been – the way we liked them – but they refuse to remain so. The next generation comes along with their own ideas and ways of doing things (most notably in music, fashion, social discourse), and we find ourselves slowly becoming frustrated and obsolete.

One of the most pervasive examples of this is in the workplace. The expectations on the “modern” worker have become ridiculous. Most of us used to work at jobs that were much more specialized and focused, but now find ourselves wearing the hats of several workers and pulled in so many different directions that we can’t adequately focus on any of them. Everything must be done half-assed and under duress. There is no longer enjoyment in anything, just a constant struggle to not fall too far  behind. Multitasking and “doing more with less” (and for less) has reached a point where the worker of today is expected to match the productivity that used to be generated by two or more workers just a decade ago. Positions are eliminated (or slyly redefined) and hours are cut, and those remaining are expected to quietly pick up the slack, with fewer perks and benefits than those they’re replacing enjoyed (pensions? ha!). This is called “progress,” but for whom? The result is a workplace full of stressed-out and demoralized people – especially the older ones, those who know that it used to be so much better. The young ones are deliciously oblivious, and are therefore highly favored by Corporate America. They won’t complain, because they don’t know things used to be better. This is the true basis of age discrimination. The mature workers (who, by the way, usually have a better work ethic than their younger counterparts) know too much for their own good, and if you try to pull the wool over their eyes, they’ll likely speak up (disengaged complainers!) Can’t let that happen, lest the young workers be empowered and the revolution begin.

There is a certain pace and rhythm to life that we become used to by our twenties, and this pace seems to be constantly accelerating. We all remember our grandparents talking about much simpler (and presumably less stressful) times, when life was slower and people had more consideration for each other, better manners, and more patience. Just imagine, people used to actually make an effort to merge onto the highway, whereas now they just barrel on and expect that you’ll get the hell out of their way. It’s all about me! Once, people would never be so rude as to chat with their companion in line while a clerk was waiting on them, but today they jabber on their cell phone during the entire transaction like you’re not even there. Yeah, you have a nice day, too, pal!

As the pace of life gets more hectic and stressful, consideration for others declines because we’re all becoming more self-absorbed, frantically pursuing a happiness that eludes us. What we really need is a break, a slow-down – meaningful chill time that is not constantly intruded upon by the demands of work, social media or our ubiquitous smartphones. I think many have forgotten how to live “off the grid,” how to just be – or perhaps the latest generation has never really experienced this. Read a book, for god’s sake! Does anyone do that anymore? (too unproductive!) We’re like hamsters who don’t know how to get off the exercise wheel. Most days at work, I feel like one of those old ’70s stage performers who tried to keep a bunch of plates on a stick spinning before they all fell to the ground.

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By the time we hit “middle-age,” we’re adrift in a world where we just don’t fit, like our time traveler. It is run by others now, others who are willing (or rather, forced) to live at a pace and with customs that we find quite disagreeable and out of step with our natural inclination. 

Maybe this is as it should be. Maybe, if we’re lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, it makes leaving this world easier, because we no longer admire or respect it. Our gig is up. Good riddance! I hope they bury me upside down so . . . well, you know the rest. Time to make way for the new, just as our eventually disillusioned grandparents made way for us. So I needn’t bemoan my eventual demise, because I know I’ll increasingly dislike the future. It’s not really for me. And this, stressed-out reader, is why the older you get, the more you’ll reminisce about the good old days. Now put down your smartphone and go read a good book set in the past – preferably the three-dimensional kind.*

*Might I recommend Wally Lamb’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” It’s not terribly long for you easily-distracted types, and it’s absolutely hilarious. (Personally, I’m currently working my way through “War and Peace.” I’m ready, and it immerses me in a simpler time and place in the past, one of the greatest benefits of reading. But the current generation will just watch the movie. It’s quicker).