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.

Yours. Mine. Ours?

When I finally felt ready to have a child I was 38 years old. (Which sounds almost young to me now, given recent statistics.) The experience of having ‘just one’ was plenty satisfying to me. I also knew in my bones that going into ‘production’ at 38 was not part of my Life Path. Turns out, the one child I had was challenge enough, especially in the 18-21 years.

My family was thrilled when I chose to get pregnant, and openly disappointed when I announced I was “one and done”. They understood how important my career still was to me (I wasn’t anywhere near the apex), but they lectured (guilted) me about the perils of having an ‘only child’. From my vantage point, multiple children in a household didn’t necessarily make for an ideal atmosphere. There was the ongoing lesson about ‘sharing’; and the one that got repeated during long road trips (trying to stakeout your exclusive personal space in the backseat of a station wagon, with two siblings and a dog) that usually meant  a lot of yelling from adults and children. Having one child felt do-able to me.

As my son grew older and his friendships expanded, my instincts felt confirmed. More than once he made comments about how ‘easy’ his life was, compared to his friends’ families (more kids in the household). Whatever the opportunity or resource (including love and attention) was, my son saw it as a ‘plus’- to not have any competition. I believed then, and still do, that for a woman who chooses to have only one child, there are advantages. There’s also a little more effort required to make sure your ‘only’ gets dosed with essential social skills. (We used summer camp, travel with cousins, and lots sleepovers). But the point of this story isn’t about raising  a well-adjusted only-child, if that’s the choice made. It’s about how you get to that choice. It’s about Cooperation, Compromise and Consensus, and how willing we are to engage in them.

When I was a young woman in a management role, the above 3 C’s (as I learned to call them) were drilled into my brain by my mentors. Through formal training and a lot of trial-and-error, I became a master (mistress?) team-builder and negotiator. In fact, this was my forté for the majority of my career. Over time, however, a quote from a friend and colleague who was a mental health professional (therapist) began to loop in my brain. Observing me in my office one day, in a state of complete exhaustion, she said, “Never work harder than your client.” The proverbial ‘light’ went on in my head: this was exactly what I’d been doing. In my earnest desire to get my team to see the personal /organizational value in cooperation, compromise and consensus, I’d dicounted the fact that human beings are not sled-dogs. Some enjoy pulling together; some will do it, grudgingly; and some want and need to craft their own roles, and define their own degree of commitment.

My son’s now approaching 30 and we often talk about how millennials are thoughtfully considering key life choices. “People aren’t having kids so much anymore – they’re getting dogs; it’s just easier “, he says. That actually makes a little bit of sense to me, but I need time to adjust to the idea of grand-dogs vs. grand-kids. More to the point is this question: are careers, relationships, marriage, babies, and mortgages coming to represent the antithesis of a value-add ? Is the thinking now, that Cooperation, Compromise and Consensus are activities that only unimaginative, Non-Woke people engage in?

From an older, wiser perspective, the answer is, Yes, and No. Careers, marriages, babies and mortgages often feel fulfilling and constricting, at the same time. Too much focus on what other people want can also jeopardize inner peace and happiness. There’s no single formula for a happy life, and, all choices involve some kind of trade-off, whether or not “the ask” is immediately apparent. The key, I think, is to pursue what’s heartfelt, and to keep growing (regardless of your age at the moment!), trying not to hurt anyone along the way.

When it feels good and correct to cooperate and compromise in a situation, I believe that this is a solid prompt to make adjustments to your own Non-Negotiables. When reaching agreement on a super-important topic, especially with a person you care for, consensus can make your inner light glow brighter, like an All is Well neon heart. The process is circular (read: ‘never-ending’) however, and has to be re-visited and repeated as people and circumstances change.

A Rut, a Holding Pattern, & an Opportunity

With Father’s Day approaching, I was thinking back to the many things I learned from my father while growing up. His childhood was marred by the Depression years. His perspective and message to his three kids was usually “Here’s the grim reality; deal with it!” Got to love those Greatest Generation men and women:  they don’t ‘play’. Not overly emotionally-intelligent, my father focused on practical lessons that, ironically, eventually became metaphors for coping with Life. Learning how to change the oil in my car turned into a lesson in Self Reliance. As did learning to keep a kitchen garden, fix a flat, splice a garden hose, find a stud in a wall, catch and clean a fish, and myriad other survival skills he believed a woman should have.

One of my earliest lessons , as a really young kid, was how to swim. In a river on the outskirts of our city, I learned how to float, dog-paddle, then actually swim (never with much grace, to this day). True to my nature, pretty soon I began pushing my own limits. One day we were swimming in a large lake in rural Virginia, near my father’s ancestral home. I was showing off, I think, by trying to swim out to a rock where my much older cousins were lounging and laughing together. I became exhausted about halfway to the rock. I had to admit to myself, I wasn’t going to make it. There was momentary panic, but then I turned on my back, puffed up my lungs, and floated on the surface of the water. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back in the sun’s glare and focused on the pink and orange swirls on my eyelids. I let the water in my ears muffle the voices on the rock, and soothe my pounding heartbeat. I stretched-out my arms and legs, letting the water and rippling waves from nearby ski boats slide under my body, as if I was a water bird and the lake was my home. No longer in panic-mode, I turned and swam back to shore and realized how really good it felt to be on terra firma.

Talking with someone very dear to me yesterday, I heard over-whelming exhaustion and frustration with his career, turning into the kind of panic we all feel from time to time: “I thought I could do this, but I can’t”; “I thought I wanted this, but I don’t”. Our realization is that we’re mid-way through a mistake – we’ve mis-calculated, mis-interpreted information, made the wrong choices – and we’re now feeling ‘stuck’. Sometimes the answer is simple:  rest for a minute, then turn around and swim back to the shore. But sometimes it’s not at all evident what the next step should be. We feel immobilized.

It saddens me to share that I have more than a few friends who are in jobs, careers, education programs, cities, relationships, marriages and other situations that feel stalled to epic proportions. The moment we realize that we’re in this ‘place’ is a moment that requires, first and foremost, stillness. The ‘rut’ we’re in is our heart speaking a Truth that our rational minds often ignore. Once that Truth is faced (as painful as it may be), we can transition from rut, to ‘holding pattern’.  Regardless of how dire a situation seems, with no solution readily apparent, as long as there is breath in our lungs, we have Choices we can make that will provide a measure of relief. Some choices involve truly horrible-feeling consequences. In a previous Post, “Who Do You Envy”, I shared with my Readers the story of a friend of mine who realized she had to leave her decades-long marriage. She’d known for many years who she really was (a woman who loved women), but had never felt able to be this person. Her decision to leave the ‘rut’ she felt she was in shot through her family like a white-hot arrow, piercing the hearts of the adults and children involved. My friend’s ‘holding pattern’ was finding a place of her own to live. This lasted almost two years while the personal and logistical details of her separation and divorce were worked out.

The last phase of moving ourselves out of a rut is recognizing the ‘opportunity’ before us. What that opportunity turns out to be is wholly dependent upon the person and the original ‘rut’. But one thing that’s universal in this process is the absolute necessity of seeing beyond the current scenario you’re in. You might detest the job you have, and mentally leave the ‘rut’ by realizing you want something more-aligned with your needs and desires. But you’re in a ‘holding pattern’ because that new job hasn’t materialized yet. The ‘opportunity’ lies in being able to turn on your back and float, so that your heart and mind together, have time to sift through your options.

As you listen to your heart and face any ‘ruts’ or ‘holding patterns’ you might be in, I hope that your options extend beyond having to swim back to shore. But, sometimes back-tracking a little, taking more time to rest and re-assess, is the best move. Back in the days of horse-drawn carts, when a wooden cartwheel got stuck in a rut, instead of whipping the horses to pull harder, the wise driver coaxed his horses gently:  step forward, step backwards, rocking the wheel in the rut just enough to lift it up and out. Easy does it.

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