Being "Set"

I try not to consciously compare myself to others in my age group – in any major category of ‘status’ (health and well-being, financial stability, the successes of our children out in the world). But sometimes the differences smack me in the face, urging me to take a look at The Good Stuff in my life. If anyone ever asked me, I’d share that my achievements feel somewhat random and accidental:  I’ve made some big blunders along the way, and am grateful that I didn’t do more damage to myself or those I love.

Talking recently with a friend (who also lives across the street from me), added to my sense of gratitude. And wonderment. A “There, but for the grace of God” moment. We don’t know each other that well, but more than just superficially. His cancer-scare. The current downward spiral of two of his adult children. The recent death of his father – a pillar in his world, now ashes in an urn on the mantle. Over time, I’ve discovered that my friend’s outward appearance of Success (a beautiful house; a cabin in the mountains; a wide array of vehicles; four- now adult- children that had apparently never given him much concern growing up) is only a small part of his Story.

We’ve all heard and read about Glass Half Full, and Glass Half Empty people. Even though Pop-Psych tends to rely on super-simplistic ways of organizing complex human stories, sometimes it does ‘nail’ it. What I recently learned, however, is that the human heart can actually talk itself into either perspective. So, my friend/neighbor (calling him Dan, here) and I were discussing the stage in life – so adverts, articles and even greeting cards would have us believe – where ‘carefree living’ is finally accessible. I call it, being “set”. Money in the bank; work that you love; vacay when you choose; a comfortable home space; and of course, health and well-being.

But the unspoken truth is that being “set” is really more about the heart than the head. You might think that you have all of the trappings of it, but then something or someone ‘tanks’ your happiness in a way that causes a re-think. So it was, with Dan. It wasn’t his own personal situation gone awry, but the decisions and actions of one of his adult children that suddenly put Dan into a tailspin. When he put his angst into words, it came out like this:  “This isn’t how it’s supposed to go! At this stage of Life, my children are supposed to be a comfort, not a worry!” (I couldn’t help but think – Wow:  did I miss the Memo guaranteeing ‘Golden Years’?)

Turns out, Dan’s 30-something son appeared to be “set”, then did a 180 and nose-dived into personal and financial crisis. The (married, with children) son had boomeranged back home, needing all sorts of emotional and material care. Dan stepped-up, as he felt he needed to do as Papa, and took-charge. But then, once he’d taken charge, he resented having his Peace obliterated by an adult who had the emotional power to pluck heart strings.

Trying not to feel smug – that always provokes a humbling ‘poke’ from The Universe – I listened to a perspective (Dan’s) that reinforced what I’ve learned along the way. Being “set” isn’t what media, especially social media, would have us think it is. It’s like the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘feeling’:  the former producing something; the latter being fluid and kind of ephemeral. Turns out, whatever feels like it should be ‘in stone’ seldom is. Careers, love affairs, seemingly ‘successful’ (whatever that means) adult children, friendships; and, stages in life that we’re led to believe will be ‘carefree’.

Over this past weekend I traveled to California’s beautiful Central Coast and watched – for a long while – the surfers enjoying what appeared to be very decent waves. Wet-suited (our Pacific being notoriously cold), tenacious (no matter how many times they were tossed under Winter’s gray-blue waves they popped up like corks) and exuberant as they deftly (and not so deftly) tried to stay poised and balanced for The Best Ride.

The “Poker Face”

The meaning and importance of human body language and facial expression has been under study for many decades in the fields of psychology, anthropology and sociology (and more).With the advent of artificial intelligence, the quest to imitate human traits such as interest, compassion, and concern within the “bodies” of artificial beings is intensifying. Non-verbal communication in our technology has expanded the options for conveying how we view ourselves and what we’re feeling, with customizable avatars and more diverse facial emojis. We’re pre-occupied with communicating how we feel, during any particular electronic conversation.

The human face is a marvel of muscles, full of possibilities for silent communication As humans, we recognize (from infancy!) the faces gazing down at us not only for their familiarity in our still-narrow world, but for the cues provided by facial expressions. As we grow older, the ability to intuit meaning and emotion from other people’s faces becomes a skill, honed by our many interactions. As any large-city dweller knows, situational awareness – including reading the faces of strangers as we pass on a street – can be helpful in avoiding a potential problem. Anyone who’s tried to communicate with a loved one in diminished capacity knows the power a smile has to say “I’m here and I love you.”

Knowing how powerfully our faces can telegraph our feelings, it continues to surprise me that, in a professional setting, so many of us (including older, wiser women) fail to deploy The Poker Face when it’s called-for. I was in a meeting this past weekend in which a group of professionals were being asked for input on a very thought-provoking topic. We were each taking turns expressing our views. The group consisted of a wide range of ages:  probably 30 to 50 year-olds. As a more “mature” woman began to speak in a slow, measured way, a younger group member (also a woman) sitting next to her interjected a quick, benign comment. It was instantly clear on the mature woman’s face that this action was highly unwelcome. She physically turned her body, so that she was facing the younger woman completely. The older woman said nothing, but stared directly at the face of the younger woman for what felt like a full 30 seconds. Since we were all in a roundtable configuration, everyone could see and feel the “daggers”. The younger woman did what I call the “belly-up, I’m feeling playful” thing that furry creatures do, to show deference or submission. She did this by breaking eye contact, smiling, looking down and away (not at the group, not wanting to see our reactions, I’m sure). The Speaker’s right to be heard (she did have ‘the floor’) was restored, but she’d also demonstrated dominance with the younger woman. At the very least, the older had ‘schooled’ the younger in ‘manners’ by staring her down. Was this necessary? Was this appropriate? The meeting went on, everyone anxious to get past this awkward ‘blip’.

The above happening triggered an embarrassing memory for me. I was meeting with about 20 board members and interested parties. One member in particular was really getting under my skin with his antagonistic questioning. I don’t recall the fullness of what my face did, but I know it included an eyeroll. I wanted that board member to know that I was fed-up with him. Most of the group ‘clocked’ this, and it was totally clear to me that I’d erred in not remaining stoic. The CEO spoke to me later, compassionately, but his advice was clear:  “You’ve got to develop your Poker Face”. Being younger, and being in Management, meant that I still believed that – when I was annoyed – it was “ok” for me to communicate that in my face. Obviously, I was too ‘green’ to fully think that faulty logic through to its conclusion:  the alienation of others in the room.

These days, we’re in a human communication atmosphere that allows for raw, reactive responses to perceived slights or outrages. Nevertheless, I’ve come to believe – through my own trial and error experiences of not being in control of my face – that The Poker Face is an under-appreciated and under-utilized strategy. In a professional or public setting, when emotions are high, being mindful (I know, that word is so over-used) of relaxing your face into a placid, peaceful expression can make what happens next more productive.

As women, I believe we need to recognize that we’re often more expressive with our emotions (pros and cons, there, for sure) than actually benefits us. The ultimate in precariousness is feeling the tears forming (anger, frustration), in a boardroom packed with men. It’s happened to me, and it’s not a memory that I cherish. Having said that, because we’re in touch with our emotions – a very good, and healthy thing – we are able to transform ourselves more quickly, through such moments, so that they become less frequent, then disappear altogether. That’s my goal, anyway.

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