midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “choice”

The Good Samaritans

Previously I wrote, What’s Wrong with People and why are Cyclists the Targets of Their Stupidity, a jaded look at a trend in society toward disrespect, rudeness, coarseness and in-your-face, bullying behavior, often manifested in belligerence toward cyclists.  Today I experienced the opposite type of behavior, a boost for my faith in humanity (although, maybe not coincidentally, the graciousness came from a fellow cyclist).

I was riding a 6.75-mile trail in my new hometown of Summerville, SC when my back tire went flat more than five miles from the trail’s start and my parked car. I was unprepared BikeFlatTireAnimated– no patch kit, no extra inner tube.  What can I say? I was never a Boy Scout. It was a Flat Tire, Choose moment: Either throw a fit, swear to the gods, kick the back tire and throw the bike into the adjacent creek, or suck it up, accept bad luck and solve the problem.

I began backtracking the five-plus miles I had already cycled on foot, pushing the bike, not wanting to damage the rim by riding on a flat. I was resigned to a walk of at least one hour and 15 minutes to get back to my car. Soon after I began my walk, a woman on a bike passed me going the opposite direction. About 15 minutes later, a mile or so into my trek, I heard a voice from behind me.

“Excuse me, do you need some help?”

I turned around to find the same woman who had passed me earlier, now alongside me, straddling her bike.

“I got a flat and I don’t have what I need to fix it.”

“Where are you heading?”

“To the beginning of the trail.”

“How far is that?”

“About four or five miles.”

“My husband is walking our dog. He’s going to meet me at the parking lot at the bridge. I just have to find him and we could give you a ride in our truck,” she offered.

“You mean the bridge we passed about a half-mile back?”

“Yeah, there’s a path up to the parking lot. You may beat us back there.”

Having watched too many Dateline and 48 Hours episodes, and living with a wife who often warns me of hypothetical criminals who could be lurking around every corner, I momentarily imagined myself naively getting in the couple’s pickup truck, and in short order, being taken hostage, tortured at gunpoint and my lifeless body dumped in a swamp off the road, a vision that conjures up the derelict, sociopathic Brad Pitt character Early in Kalifornia.

I could have been fooled badly, but I detected genuine goodness in my fellow cyclist, and went on faith that her husband would be similarly congenial.

“I’ll meet you at the parking lot,” I said, and turned around to head from whence I just came.

The young couple, likely in their 20s, met me at the parking lot just like she said, helped me load my bike into the pickup along with her bike, gave me the front seat, and drove me five miles out of their way to my car. We engaged in conversation during the drive, with her husband referring to me respectfully as “sir” (not that I expect to be called “sir” by people junior to me in age, but I have experienced that a lot in the South so far).

I thanked them multiple times for their graciousness. I wanted to bottle the moment to revisit every time I feel myself becoming cynical about mankind. They were the type of people I would like to corral as new friends, if not for our generation gap.

We parted. I may never see them again, unless I run into them on the trail. No life was at stake; the situation was not desperate. Nevertheless, I likely will never forget their act of pure kindness for a complete stranger. Thank you Angela and Chris, Good Samaritans both.

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Midlife and Crisis: An Uneasy Relationship

This essay is the introduction to my new book, All That’s Gone and Still Remains: Reflections of a Man at Midlife, based on the Midlife Dude blog.

Midlife gets a bad rap. What else can be concluded when “midlife” is practically married to “crisis?” Two peas in a pod they are, “midlife” and “crisis.” But are they really well matched?

Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, concluding in a study that creative geniuses underwent changes of style or declines in productivity in their mid-to-late-30s. The term gained traction in popular culture by the 1970s, describing the time of life roughly between ages 40 and 65 when adults become attuned to their own mortality, concerned with leaving a mark before dying, and reflective about whether their first half of life has been meaningful.MidlifeCrisisGuyWithCar

But the term has snowballed from its origins documenting the imaginative processes of artists and poets in an obscure, dry journal of psychoanalysis to represent everything cataclysmic that seemingly afflicts the middle-aged trying desperately to ignore failed dreams and roll back the merciless tide of aging in a culture fixated on youth. Author Gail Sheehy cemented the gloomy view of midlife in her landmark 1976 bestselling book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, referring to decades of life as the “Forlorn Forties” and “Resigned Fifties.”

Time to Ditch Wife for Bombshell?

“Midlife crisis” is more typically applied to males, at least when couched in a derogatory manner signifying an unofficial malady. “Midlife crisis” has come to denote the man who ditches his long-devoted, slightly wrinkling and graying wife for the platinum blonde bombshell 20 years his junior in his office; trades in his practical suburban family vehicle for the candy-apple red Porsche roadster; and transforms from dull and predictable to flamboyant and impulsive, fueled by a surge of drugging and boozing in a pathetic effort to recapture the carefree, raucous days of yore.

For women, the term “midlife crisis” generally carries an undertone that is more forgiving and socially validating, one tilted more toward liberation than debauchery. Sure, some midlife women succumb to vain attempts to recapture youth through medical and cosmetic procedures, or irresponsibly abandon a family to engage in self-indulgent, feel-good, self-destructive behaviors. The 40s decade certainly seems a marker of heightened vulnerability and confusion, as the beauty of youth wanes, marriages grow stale and risk of divorce increase, and children become more independent and leave, diminishing what many women regard as a primary raison d’etre.

Yet, midlife is characterized more as a time of renewal, rebirth and exploration for women. It is seen as an opportunity to shed an old self that may have been contorted to meet societal, cultural and parental expectations and transform into a more authentic, independent, self-accepting, self-confident being, and to reclaim aspects of personality and passions lost along the way. Midlife is viewed as a period of re-evaluation and adjustment, of increased wisdom, strengths, experience and vitality, when old dreams that no longer inspire are abandoned and more genuine desires and talents take hold, a process known as self-actualization, or becoming more fully oneself. Rather than a “crisis” producing angst, depression and dissatisfaction, psychotherapist and author Stephanie Marston declared that  the women she chronicled in her book, If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife, characterized midlife as “one of the best times of their lives.”

What’s the Crisis?

Social science researchers have varied widely on whether any identifiable phenomenon that could be labeled as “midlife crisis” exists; numerous studies have shown midlife is not characterized by pervasive crises. Certainly, there are no commonly defined symptoms and nothing resembling a midlife disorder appears in the Bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Count renowned psychologist Daniel Levinson, author of the 1978 seminal book, Seasons of a Man’s Life, among the true believers. Following a group of working men for 10 years, Levinson developed a theory that delineated adulthood as a series of stages and transitions, each with a developmental task or crisis to resolve to advance to the next with a sense of well-being. Unlike some other researchers who rejected the concept of a “midlife crisis,” Levinson determined that 80 percent of the men he interviewed found the midlife transition a tumultuous struggle and psychologically painful. He bluntly described the existential predicament men face at midlife in Seasons: “Adults hope that life begins at 40 – but the great anxiety is that it ends there…It is terrifying to go through middle age in the shadow of death…and it is a self-defeating illusion to live it in the shadow of youth…”

I believe the stereotypical male version of a “midlife crisis” is overblown, hyperbole, a caricature. In reality, I contend a man’s “midlife crisis” more closely resembles the woman’s experience of re-evaluation, greater self-knowledge and wisdom – at least among those adults who aren’t withering in place – than the stereotypical jerk wearing shiny new bling glinting through an open shirt, cruising in an eye-popping Corvette convertible, ditzy blonde under his arm, toupee blowing in the wind.

Midlife Challenges

Midlife requires leaps of faith, acceptance and tolerance of uncertainty. We encounter the realization that our careers may have hit a ceiling, and re-evaluate whether the work at which we might have labored for decades provides meaning or nourishes our soul anymore, or ever did. We pause to question whether the race for success, advancement and achievement, as defined in young adulthood, is worth chasing anymore. If we haven’t already experienced job loss through no fault of our own, we are prime targets for downsizing and early retirement packages because of our age and salaries. We have to run ever faster to avoid becoming obsolete in the face of rapid societal and technological changes, the province of the young.

We grapple with the financial pressures of mortgages, college tuitions, accumulated debt, material acquisitions, increasing health care costs and looming retirement. We question whether our marriages are satisfying or have gone flat, whether the grass may be greener. We groom our children and ultimately set them free – except those suffering from Failure to Launch Syndrome — experiencing some sense of loss entering the childless phase. We may be sandwiched, caring for ailing parents while parenting our own kids. Mounting midlife challenges can be associated with high levels of stress, anxiety and sadness, which can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, deterioration of physical and mental health and acceleration of aging.

Through it all, we face choices, the biggest of which is whether we will transition at this crossroad toward reimagining and reinvigorating a life with new possibilities, purpose and contributions through continued growth and development, or whether we will hunker down, circle the wagons, kick like a mule, pull the covers tight, switch on autopilot and hang on mightily to the status quo, resigned to becoming a member of the walking dead until the nursing home comes calling.

Giving Back vs. Giving Up

Psychologist Erik Erickson captured this dichotomous phase of life in his preeminent Stages of Psychosocial Development theory, identifying midlife as the period of Generativity vs. Stagnation. Adults entering their second half of life would either help guide the next generation through socially valuable work, creativity, productivity and loving relationships, or would stagnate in a pool of self-centeredness and ineffectiveness. Those who do not associate change with growth but rather with loss, being passed by or failing are destined to weigh on Erickson’s Stagnation side of the scale.

I have dealt with many of midlife’s rites of passage. I have lost jobs multiple times; changed careers, requiring a return to school and sacrificing years of experience and money to start over in an occupation that stirred my soul; moved to experience a new environment and culture; divorced and remarried; faced the challenges of parenting teen-aged kids and watched them leave home for independent lives; cared for an ailing mother, and lost her; observed a colleague succumb to the ravages of alcohol and depression; experienced a major health setback and long rehabilitation; and strived for self-fulfilling goals involving creative expression. I believe I’m heading down Erickson’s path of Generativity; if I wasn’t, I imagine my life would be crushingly bland and I would be miserable.

These essays, compiled upon my entry into and over the course of a clinical mental health counseling graduate program from my late 40s to mid-50s, provide commentary from a personal perspective on these and other midlife issues, and seek to relate my experiences broadly to others going through similar midlife transitional phases and events. These writings reflect the opportunities and challenges, risks and rewards, hopes and fears, and triumphs and setbacks I’ve experienced and observed in midlife.

In tone, the essays are inspirational, triumphant, motivational, hopeful, wistful, prideful, contemplative,  inquisitive, wondrous, melancholic, depressing, upsetting, mournful, resigned, disappointed, critical, self-questioning – in short, the kaleidoscope that the midlife passage presents to our minds, hearts and souls.

Choose It or Lose It

…[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision…

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

…[F]or all practical purposes, we choose everything we do, including the misery we feel. Other people can neither make us miserable nor make us happy…[W]e choose all our actions and thoughts and, indirectly, almost all our feelings and much of our physiology. As bad as you may feel, much of what goes on in your body when you are in pain or sick is the indirect result of the actions and thoughts you choose or have chosen every day of your life…[W]e are much more in control of our lives than we realize. Unfortunately, much of that control is not effective…Taking more effective control means making better choices…

William Glasser, MD, A New Psychology of Personal Freedom

In the 1990s, I attended the Landmark Forum, a three-day workshop designed to bring about transformative changes in the quality of one’s life through an examination of, and shifts in one’s beliefs, thoughts, behaviors, patterns, commitments and actions.

A Forum anecdote that I remember 20 years later is “Flat tire. Choose.” The premise is simple: Your car gets a flat tire on an inconvenient stretch of road. The choices are more complicated: bash the steering wheel; kick the tire; Frisbee the hubcap; bang the hood; yell and scream; drop some F-bombs; curse the gods and your perpetual bad luck; cry; sit on the side of the road in misery or bewilderment. Or, choose to accept reality and make decisions to address the problem. It’s your choice: Choose…

I have no choice. How many times have you heard that grievance? Is it ever really true?

We all have choices, all the time. Even when it seems like we don’t have any. Even when it seems we have no good choices, when choices are constrained, we still have choices,Choices_Sartre the free will to choose. We can choose our attitude, our perspective, our response, our outlook, our meaning. We can choose not to choose, and still make a choice.

We can even choose our feelings, contends the founder of reality therapy and choice theory, William Glasser, MD, who would say that an individual is “depressing,” or “saddening,” indicating that they are consciously choosing their mood state and have the power to make a different choice.

According to Glasser’s choice theory, all human behavior is intentional, not aimless, and choices are based on “here-and-now” motivations. Choices are made to generate feedback from the outer world and satisfy what Glasser defined as the five basic human needs: survival, love/belonging, power, freedom/independence and fun. Choices also are made to send a message to the outer world, and to specific individuals with whom one has a relationship; for example, that one is confident or  self-doubting, happy or angry, trusting or distrustful, constructive or self-destructive, hungry for success or resigned to failure.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a World War II Holocaust survivor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, described the realization that he had choices – his belief in his own self-dignity, and what he could think, envision and hope, for example — despite the brutal and horrific conditions he endured as a captive as a main reason for his survival. Recognizing the freedom to choose was a prime factor that separated those who maintained a sense of meaning in their lives and hope for the future, and those who became deadened to life, devoid of faith and more likely to succumb to death, Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.

I have observed as a mental health counselor that the execution of choice in people’s lives – the willingness to use it proactively and the effectiveness with which it is used – is perhaps the greatest determiner of an individual’s mental and emotional health, the condition of their relationships and their ability to create meaning and purpose in their lives.

Husbands and wives decline to choose to change behaviors or actions that affect their relationships, or to choose to change their relationship status though they confess to being dissatisfied and unhappy. They are making choices nonetheless, and in so doing, locking patterns in place and cementing bonds that contribute to distress. I’ve seen other couples willing to examine behaviors, accept individual responsibility and choose to make changes, who report an increase in satisfaction and happiness almost immediately.

I have heard individuals describe that they choose not to pursue things they want by creating reasons why their desires may not be practical or possible; choose not to make certain changes because they believe they’re just trapped in circumstances; choose to continue ineffective or destructive beliefs, behaviors and actions, despite evidence of poor results, simply because they’ve always chosen that path; choose to deny reality; choose to be taken advantage of or victimized; choose to rationalize addictions; and choose to blame others for how they feel and what they do.

I have also witnessed individuals, even as young as middle schoolers, choose to battle heroically against the hand they were dealt in life, including horrendous abuse, to reclaim their true selves and create their own futures; choose to make meaning out of devastating circumstances, including incurable illness; and choose to take full responsibility for the direction of their lives and their own happiness.

During the upheaval of midlife, I’ve considered and made many choices that have had major consequences in my life – whether and how to commit to furthering my education; pursue a career change; empower my kids; fight back against an unfair employer; rebound from divorce; enter new romantic relationships; re-evaluate and restructure current relationships; live on less; relocate to a new area;  start over; and deal with loneliness among them.

Many of the choices have been stressful and excruciatingly difficult; however, I appreciate my ability and freedom to make choices. Usually I have chosen to do something instead of nothing, chosen to take an action rather than punt. I also have had opportunities to choose my feelings, which can range broadly along a spectrum: optimism vs. pessimism; hopefulness vs. sadness; confidence vs. fearfulness; contentedness vs. dissatisfaction; trust vs. doubt; vitality vs. loneliness. Those choices affect my emotions and happiness with my life every day, and thus my effectiveness, productivity and image I present to the world.

Choice is a muscle; without effective and contemplative use, it atrophies, becoming a mechanism to promote misery rather than a tool to amplify freedom. Choose it or lose it: The choice is yours, always and forever.

Speaking of choice, here’s a quote about choice from a favorite movie, The Family Man, in which Jack continually faces choices involving love vs. detachment; family vs. career; personal ego gratification vs. egoless contribution; hedonism vs. temperance; taking vs. giving:

Kate: When you got on that plane, I was sure it was over. I left the airport afraid I’d never see you again. And then you showed up the very next day. That was a good surprise. You know, I think about the decision you made… maybe I was being naive, but I believed that we would grow old together in this house. That we’d spend holidays here and have our grandchildren come visit us here. I had this image of us, all grey and wrinkly, and me working in the garden and you re-painting the deck. But things change. If you need this, Jack, if you really need this, I will take these kids from a life they love and I’ll take myself from the only home we’ve ever shared together and I’ll move wherever you need to go. I’ll do that because I love you. I love you, and that’s more important to me than our address. I choose us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0ZGibTDo9A

 

 

 

 

The Bailout

In my short time as a counselor, I’ve encountered parents who profess virtual powerlessness in the face of the behavior and choices of their young adult and mature adult children, from their late teens to late 20s.

The child rules the roost, while the parents, frayed, demoralized and depressed, submit to the child’s willful and controlling ways. I feel for the parents and their conundrum. It must be a weighty burden to worry ceaselessly about your child, indulge the illusion BailoutStampthat one can control their child’s fate, bail out the child at every turn, and feel eternally responsible for the child’s life choices and outcomes.

At the core of this feeling of parental helplessness is confusion over protecting a child – from danger, failure, mistakes, homelessness or even projected death – versus enabling behavior that avoids individual responsibility and experiencing consequences. Intentions may be good; results are not. Such smothering and shielding behavior on the part of parents contributes to the arresting of the child’s growth and development. Twenty-five-year-olds essentially are frozen at 15, having learned how to game one or both parents to their advantage and escape accountability. The longer the pattern continues and the parent remains the bailer, the less motivation the child has to change.

Sometimes, one parent contends, their spouse is to blame for their own helplessness, because the spouse is over-protective and unable to let go. One parent claims to try endlessly to set their stunted child free, but the other parent overrules them, shuts them down and continues down the same corrosive path, as the spurned parent becomes relegated to anemic bystander, tilting at windmills. But this is just an excuse to forgive the method the child uses to manipulate the parents to get what they want, just like the child learned as a little kid. While the parents will blame the child – “He just refuses to get a job, what can you do?!” “I can’t believe how she talks to her mother! She has no respect!” – the parents are the ones who fail to unite themselves and stick to any set of boundaries, rules or principles that would render their child’s behavior ineffective and counterproductive.

Fear, guilt and a desire to control immobilize the parent from allowing their child to make their own choices, accept responsibility, experience consequences, learn from mistakes and live their own lives. The result is a pattern of co-dependency that is difficult to break. The child never breaks away from at least one parent, while the other parent may become a spare part, suffering in self-imposed silence or virtual exile. The child depends on the parent to coddle and protect, providing safe haven from having to grow up and contend with an uncertain and uncaring world, from taking a risk, from self-determination. The parent depends on the child’s feigned incompetence and irresponsibility to feel needed, helpful and good about himself/herself, to validate their duty as a parent by doing “anything” for their child, to fulfill the role of protector and savior.

Adults in their 20s who are capable of living independently are essentially rewarded for their “failure to launch.” They don’t need a job because their basic financial needs – shelter, food, electricity, water, health care – are provided, as are wants such as cable TV and a car. So they don’t bother to seek one; holding a job would require taking individual responsibility. They don’t attend school because they have no motivation to set goals. They live at their parents’ home because it’s a safer bet – all the accountability is heaped on the parents — and easier. The unavoidable hassles and conflicts with the parents and turmoil in the household are just part of the bargain. They bum money as needed, claiming it is for one purpose while in some cases the parents providing the money know all along it is for drugs or alcohol, and resent giving in, but give in they ultimately do to maintain the dependent relationship.

Young adults living with their parents is a prevalent U.S. social trend: The U.S. Census Bureau found that more than one-third of people aged 18 to 34 lived under their parents’ roof in 2015; 10 years earlier, the percentage was about one-fourth. Nearly 9 of 10 who had lived with their parents in 2014 still did a year later. Indicating a rise in parental bailouts, the survey ominously found that 1 in 4 young adults aged 25 to 34 living in their parents’ home neither attended school nor worked.

I am grateful and proud that my kids are heading toward independent lives, on schedule. My 22-year-old daughter graduated college and is teaching in France. My 19-year-old son is attending college, majoring in computer science, and working part-time for UPS in logistics. If one of them holed up in my basement and refused to crawl out into their own life, I can’t be sure what I would do. I would hope I wouldn’t cave in and cater to dysfunction, irresponsibility and manipulation, but until you walk in someone else’s shoes…Thankfully, I don’t think my kids will give me the chance to wear those shoes.

One school of therapy posits that all human motivation is intentional, that all behavior is purposeful. Human behavior seeks to shape the world to satisfy at least one human need. For adults who have failed to launch, that need often is self-preservation. The anxiety and doubt of relying on oneself breeds dependence and escape from responsibility. Their behavior sends the message that the world is a scary place that expects something from us; the goal is to remain safe and preserve ego. If you don’t attempt, you can’t fail. Parents who are too willing to satisfy the need become the enablers, the practitioners of the bailout, who perpetuate their adult children’s prolonged adolescence.

Ramblin’ Man

For the second time in my adult life, I loaded all my possessions I could fit in a compact car and traveled more than 500 miles to a new city in a new state to begin a new career and concomitantly, a new life.

Two small differences were that the first time, I drove a Honda Civic from Washington, D.C. to Florida; the second time, a Toyota Corolla from Maryland to South Carolina.AdamCarPackedForSC

A bigger difference is that the first time I was 22 and just starting out in life, the future stretched out before me like the unending Eastern Seaboard expanse of Interstate 95 that I trekked to Florida, with few obligations or attachments. If the world wasn’t yet exactly my oyster, I had what seemed an eternity to search for pearls.

This time, I was 54, acutely aware of entering the latter stages of my career and wanting to make it inspired, with long-standing financial, material, family, friendship and community ties from nearly three decades in the Baltimore-Washington region. Quite simply, there was more riding on my decision – more people to potentially disappoint or who would disapprove; more things to give up; a sense of security and stability that comes with comfort and familiarity to be shattered; greater doubts and fears about starting anew in midlife to be conquered.

Moving is never easy, especially when relocating as far away as I have, from Maryland to the Charleston area of South Carolina, far enough to truly be gone. I feel like I’ve made a highly unconventional decision to upend my life at this midlife stage, gone against the grain. Indeed, demographic studies and surveys say I have.

While the United States is widely viewed as a land of boundless geographic mobility, with its heritage of explorers braving the Wild West frontiers and searching for their fortune in gold, the truth is, many Americans never venture more than a half-hour from their hometowns to live. Most Americans, especially from certain demographic groups, are stayers, not movers.

  • A 2015 University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study found that the typical adult – half the population — lives within 18 miles of his or her mother, and only 20 percent live more than a few hours’ drive from their parents. The study showed that over the last few decades, Americans are staying put at higher rates, with multiple generations remaining close to relatives for financial and logistical support. Those with college educations and higher incomes are more likely to live farther from their parents.
  • A 2015 Allstate/National JournalHeartland Monitor poll determined that more than half of respondents lived in close proximity to where they grew up. The percentage of stayers was highest for people from rural areas and small towns. Nearly half of all respondents had lived in the same area for 21 years or more. The pull to stay put is strong: Less than half of the respondents who believed that their hometown regions were on the downswing economically nevertheless said that the possibility of a move was not likely for them.
  • A 2008 Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 40 percent of Americans had never left the hometown region in which they were born, and 57 percent had never lived in a state other than the state in which they were born. Those who moved most often cited greater economic opportunity; the main influencers for stayers were family, established connections, and a sense of belonging.

Anecdotally, it seemed to me that people in my demographic group – college educated suburban or urban dwellers — moved around in early adulthood as they established careers, sought better opportunities, climbed work and social ladders and started families. But once they entered that next stage, middle adulthood, they seemed to stay put for decades until retirement, in their 60s or 70s, or beyond.

Beyond the pull of family, connections, familiarity and a sense of belonging, a big reason few people move in midlife is that it’s just plain hard, especially emotionally. It’s a gamble, as much as one tries to predict and reduce the risk through analysis, projection and planning. I’m experiencing that now, just completing the first two weeks in my adopted new South Carolina hometown. Everything is new; nothing is known. I can’t sit back and wait for things to happen; I have to make them happen. It takes energy, effort and openness. It requires being outgoing, to meet new people, forge relationships with work colleagues and get involved in things I like to do. It involves learning and adapting to a new culture – as my boss jokes:  “get used to guns and fried chicken.”

It can be lonely – extremely lonely. I relocated to a region where I have no friends or family. Some may call this decision a mistake, a dumb move, a misguided effort to search for where “the grass is greener.”

I certainly have misgivings. I have given up a lot, and that weighs on me. I still don’t know how some things will turn out because of my decision. I almost abandoned the idea of moving many times, but an urge wouldn’t let me. I made a gut decision based on seeking a change of environment after 30 years; an opportunity where I would perhaps be a larger fish in a smaller pond in my new counseling career, thus increasing business prospects; and a place that offered a lifestyle and culture that I believed I would enjoy potentially for the rest of my working life and thereafter. The short-term adjustment challenges would have long-term benefits in quality of life and career satisfaction, I gambled. Still, it was hard to pull the trigger and yank up stakes.

But the angst is counterbalanced by the excitement, renewal, opportunity and sense of adventure that comes with starting fresh in a new place. It’s a chance to recharge batteries and create something from scratch, to expand my universe and experiences, to grow and learn and build confidence, to stretch beyond the known and test myself.

For me, with memories of pulling into my retired distant relatives’ house in Longboat Key, Florida in the dark after a 20-hour journey to start a new life as a 22-year-old sportswriter still vivid in my mind, those affirmatives made it worth going back to the future.

She’s Leaving on a Jet Plane: No Failure to Launch

My daughter literally has launched herself into adulthood.

The cornerstone job as a parent is to help your kids launch themselves successfully into adulthood by fostering their independence, confidence, self-identity, decision-making ability, sense of responsibility and motivation – traits which they have to develop themselves but over which parents have a big influence.

I’m proud and excited to see my 21-year-old daughter Rebecca exhibiting these traits. She has jetted off for Toulon, France, on the Mediterranean coast, for an eight-month RebInFranceassignment teaching English in two French middle schools, her first professional job after graduating college. This will be her second tour abroad, following a semester in college in which she studied at the University of Lyon in Lyon, France, and traveled throughout Europe.

Rebecca landed in Toulon September 18, 2017, not knowing anyone, same as when she ventured to Lyon in a study group comprised of American students from across the country. She was anxious and excited, the eagerness and thrill of the adventure, opportunity, unknown and challenge far outweighing any fears and doubts. I congratulate Rebecca on her adventurous spirit and desire to explore the world.

No Failure to Launch here, unlike Matthew McConaughey’s 30-something character in the 2006 movie of that title, who resisted leaving the comforts of the cushy life provided by his parents until they hatched a plan to finally get him to launch out on his own.

Psychology Today labeled “failure to launch” as a syndrome characterized by the “difficulties some young adults face when transitioning into the next phase of development—a stage which involves greater independence and responsibility.” Energy, desire and motivation are the necessary ingredients to fuel the launch and overcome fears and anxiety, and taking risks and actions comprise the launch process. Then, resilience and perseverance are required to overcome inevitable turbulence and continue progressing during this stage. Without those components, the post-adolescent risks becoming stuck and dependent.

Ultimately, says Psychology Today author and psychiatrist Robert Fischer, M.D., for a successful launch, a young adult “must tap into and identify a passion or passions, experience the joy that comes with expressing those passions, and have opportunities to share this joy with others.  There must be a conscious effort to cultivate not just the logic of the mind, but also the desires of the heart.”

I’m gratified that Rebecca is following her passion and desire by taking the risk and action to travel to France and to teach in foreign schools.

Rebecca is part of an age group that has been segmented recently from the broader adulthood category and coined “emerging adulthood” for its characteristics common to people in their late teens through their 20s. These are young people who feel like the knot in a tug-of-war rope, caught between breaking free of the challenges of adolescence yet often still maintaining close bonds with parents, family and the familiar trappings of youthful existence.

The psychologist who identified the new life-span development phase, Jeffrey Arnett, outlined five distinct features of emerging adulthood:

  • Identity exploration: Establishing one’s self-identity continues to evolve throughout the 20s, as young adults search for what brings satisfaction out of education, work, and relationships.
  • Instability: This group moves around a lot, among schools, jobs, locations and residences as they experiment with future paths, change their minds and directions and struggle to accumulate the resources to fuel their journeys.
  • Self-focus: Emerging adulthood is a time of intensive internal focus, as young adults explore their desires for work, living arrangements, experiences and relationships with a sense of broad possibilities and few encumbrances. It is an age when opportunities may seem limitless, before developments such as marriage, children, increased financial obligations and career choices inevitably pose constraints and redirect attention more outward.
  • Feeling in between: Emerging adults feel they are taking more responsibility for their own lives and decisions, yet still feel they have not completely broken free from some form of dependence and do not completely feel like an entirely self-sufficient, autonomous adult.
  • Age of possibilities: Optimism characterizes emerging adulthood. After taking a hard look at their parents’ lives, many believe they have a good chance to create a more rewarding and exciting life for themselves.

Another researcher sought to determine why some emerging adults thrive and why some struggle in establishing identities and independence. She found that the foundation for such progress or obstacles are established in childhood and adolescence, and are heavily influenced by parents striking the right balance between providing support, limits and structure, and encouraging kids to pursue independence and make their own decisions.

One type of family dysfunction that inhibits emerging adults from becoming independent is “enmeshment,” when family members’ emotional lives are so intertwined that children have difficulty separating, becoming their own person, and accepting responsibility for their choices and lives. This is a dynamic I have observed often in counseling.

The signs are clear that my daughter is becoming the captain of her own jet. I feel rewarded as a father that I have contributed to the foundation of her launching pad.

Do the Limbo. Or, How to Be ‘Comfortable with Ambiguity’

I am in limbo. Complete and utter limbo.

However, the bar is not set low and I am not trying to shimmy under. The bar is high and I am aspiring to clear it like a Fosbury Flop.LimboDance

It’s not supposed to be like this as a 54-year-old, according to societal expectations. I’m supposed to be settled, stable, predictable, a rock, boring in my steadiness. I chose another path, paved with uncertainty. It’s come with a loss of income, stability and predictability. But I expect the payoff will come in the form of greater life and career satisfaction, and income growth ultimately will follow as I hopefully find passion in my work.

My limbo status is largely of my own design and in small part due to the bugaboo of bureaucracy.

I have 11 days left until my second summer teaching tennis at the Sea Colony resort in Bethany Beach, DE runs out on Labor Day and I return home, jobless and anxious but optimistic. I have spent nearly two years in the Gig Economy, ever since a non-amicable parting with a former employer allowed me to place more focus on a master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling and the two years of internships required to complete it, as part of a midlife career transition from public relations to counseling. I have been scrambling to piece together part-time, temporary and contractual jobs since I dropped out of the routine 9-to-5 world.

I graduated in May 2017, and expected that tennis teaching for 3 ½ months would provide the perfect bridge to the new career, allowing enough time for me to obtain the state license I need to be eligible to practice, get hired and begin work. But bureaucracy has brought that plan to a grinding halt, possibly leading me to the unemployment office rather than a counseling office, at least temporarily.

A long waiting period to get access to my “official verified” National Counselor Exam report has left my state license applications – and thus job prospects – in limbo, even though I have already been notified that I passed the exam. The blood pressure ticked a little higher each day over the last six weeks as I awaited an email notification from the national counselor certification body that my school transcript met all requirements, along with my exam score, for certification.

One former boss wrote in my annual performance review that I needed to be “comfortable with ambiguity.” That was corporate speak for an organization refusing to accept accountability for its disorganization, poor leadership and incoherent, vacillating strategy. Ironically, now that I’ve left that organization, the advice applies.

My immediate future is ambiguous. I don’t know where I’ll be working as a counselor, or when. I don’t know how long it will take state licensing boards to review my applications and grant a license. I don’t even know what state I will be living in, as I have applied for license in Maryland and South Carolina.

So, what have I learned about being “comfortable with ambiguity?”

  • Take things one day at a time, as cliché as that may sound. Thinking too much about unknowns in the future produces excessive worry but no solutions.
  • Pursue aggressive actions whenever possible to address things over which you do have control, such as making networking contacts, applying to jobs and following up on leads. Taking action tends to boost motivation, confidence and attitude.
  • Detach from the cell phone and computer for periods of time. It’s tempting when living with job and income uncertainty to obsessively check for email and phone contacts, which increases anxiety each time none have come through.
  • Have faith that putting what you want to attract into the universe ultimately will materialize for you, with persistence, patience and a positive outlook.
  • Continue doing things you like to do (that are free or low-cost) to keep your spirits high and take your mind off worries.
  • Squirrel away your nuts (money). Live cheaply (the Minimalist lifestyle) while dealing with ambiguity, to reduce financial pressures.

Limbo is not a comfortable place to be when you have financial and family obligations, when you feel like you should be occupying a certain status and you’re not, and when you like to plan and predict your life with a high degree of certainty. But for me, my current state of limbo is a necessary part of the process of getting where I want to be, just another stage of the journey, another bar to traverse.

Man in the Mirror: ‘Compare In, Not Out’

In the substance abuse therapy group I co-led as an intern, the group leader would tell members to “compare in, not out” when he detected a member analyzing whose addiction was worse than another’s, assessing who among members engaged in more risky or reckless behaviors or seeking salacious details about others’ misfortunes and misadventures.

The leader’s message to the addicts was as clear as the typical pre-school teacher’s emphasizing individual responsibility and self-control to easily distracted and influenced children focused on others: “Worry about yourself.”

It’s a simple message, but one that takes discipline and introspection to implement, whether for the purpose of changing addictive behaviors or many other goals or pursuits in life in which the temptation is to compare ourselves to the status, abilities, fortune and accomplishments of others. The era of social media has compounded the phenomenon of “comparing out” through the instantaneous access we have into the windows of others’ lives – their new jobs, kids’ achievements, lively social gatherings, adventurous vacations and other things of which to be envious.

We would be more satisfied with our lives if we would “compare in, not out.” To me, “comparing in” means evaluating myself according to my assessment of my own Man in Mirror 2potential, my ability to strive for and attain goals I believe are worth pursuing, being happy with what I have at any given time rather than desiring what I don’t, and living life in a way that makes me feel positive about my actions, conduct and treatment of others, even though it will be far from perfect.

Still, living life without “comparing out” is a challenge for me, as I imagine it is for nearly everyone who hasn’t mastered some form of meditation or inner peace.

Right now, I am struggling against “comparing out” as I begin my second summer as a seasonal tennis instructor at a large beach resort tennis club, a “gig economy” interlude as I make a career transition to counseling.

Among the instructors, several of whom are year-round employees, it is apparent that I am ranked lower in the pecking order, understandably and justifiably as a seasonal staff member, similar to last summer. I know what I have to do to be successful is to conduct each clinic and private lesson to the best of my ability, stay upbeat and high-energy, engage clients in a friendly, interested and courteous manner, and work cooperatively with the staff as part of a team. But I still find it hard to resist comparing the assignments and the number of on-court teaching hours I get – which determines income — to others. Such “comparing out,” and the ruminations it causes, only makes me feel worse; on the other hand, “comparing in” when I give my all for a lesson or clinic, or assist a fellow instructor when needed, makes me feel positive.

My career transition from public relations to counseling is another area where I have to fight the lure of “comparing out” and instead “compare in,” basing my assessment on what I deem is fulfilling and achieves a sense of purpose. Though there is potential for income growth with the establishment of an independent counseling practice in the future, my first job in the profession likely will pay about half of what I was making in the public relations position I left. Eyeing the reality of my pending job search, it is challenging to avoid “comparing out” to other professionals in my age group who may be at the height of their earning potential and aren’t worried about scraping by. That’s when it’s important to “compare in” and realize I chose this path for a reason and I am fully responsible for my decision and the outcome.

“Comparing in” is difficult because it puts the onus squarely on us for our own successes and failures, our current condition in life, our decisions and behaviors, and, perhaps most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves and our own satisfaction and happiness. When we compare ourselves only to our own standards, goals, morals, ethics and beliefs, we strip away self-delusions and rationalizations and are forced to see only the “Man in the Mirror,” our only true compass.

(Not) A Chip off the Old Block

Academically, my son Daniel doesn’t take after me – except for the fact that we have each attended college. And in today’s increasingly specialized and technological economy and job market, I’d say that’s good for him.

As a freshman computer science major and bioinformatics minor, Daniel is taking a heavy dose of computer programming, biology, statistics and math. I predict he will separate DanAdam2_PotomacHallhimself from the masses who hold college degrees, which no longer guarantee entry into the professional world, by going the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) route and will find himself in demand in the job market. No post-college Parental Unit Domicile (PUD) basement-dwelling likely or necessary for him!

I, on the other hand, took an occasional math or science course three decades ago at my liberal arts college – only enough to meet the requirements to graduate – and overdosed on philosophy, history, political science, economics and English courses, emerging with a smorgasbord-style International Relations degree that led to nothing in particular.

But in that era, being a generalist with a broad liberal arts education could still work as a professional launching pad for many occupations. It’s not that it can’t work today, but it just appears harder.

Industries can be more selective in hiring graduates who more closely fit the profile for their jobs based on their degrees, internship experiences and technical and industry-specific knowledge. Those without more targeted, specialized and immediately marketable degrees will flood the “generalist” markets, like education, communications, sales, fundraising and social services, creating the immense competition that has left many college graduates on the sidelines.

While teaching tennis at an beach resort last summer in the midst of my career transition to counseling, I talked with a doctor at Minnesota’s renowned Mayo Clinic after a tennis clinic. His wife also was a physician. He had two kids in college, and explained his parenting philosophy about his kids’ college education. He did not take a laissez faire approach, like many parents who allow their kids to “find themselves” – or not – by experimenting and dabbling with a variety of subjects with no clear idea of where they were heading. Guessing and floundering, and possibly wasting time and money, was not acceptable, he emphasized. If his kids were going to attend college, he demanded that they have “skin in the game” and demonstrate a well-thought out plan outlining what they would study, and how their field of study would lead to a career path and jobs immediately after college, based on real-world economic and occupational data. Otherwise, the parental money pipeline would be disconnected.

It made sense to me. And immediately after my discussion with the doctor, I was struck by pangs of guilt: My daughter Rebecca was about to enter her senior year of college as a liberal arts major – sociology and French minor – and I had never really had that practical conversation with her about the real-world application of her college pursuits. I was the laissez faire parent!

That’s not necessarily a bad approach. There’s value in allowing your kids to make their own decisions, find their interests and passions on their own, and take responsibility for the outcomes. Parents foisting their own interests, desires and fears upon their kids to either force or influence them to take a certain path rarely works – at least not over the long haul – and typically ends in resentment. But I still felt remiss about possibly leaving Rebecca unprepared for a world that can be callous and crush souls.

So I called Rebecca that August day, knowing that merely mentioning the idea of developing a plan for her post-college life early in her senior year could ratchet up her stress level. She assured me that she was considering various ideas and researching careers, and that she wasn’t approaching her pending graduation flippantly.

That was enough for me. I could check off the Parental Duty box next to “Advise Child of Importance of College Choices.” I’ve never been a hard-ass parent. I have confidence Rebecca will find her way, just like I do with Daniel. And even though their career paths will be different, I’m glad both will be making their decisions based on what they want to do, not based on my ideas of what they should do or on pursuing a path based on fear that they won’t succeed. Because they will succeed if they have the desire and interest.

There are no strings attached to my investment in their college educations. I’ll guide where I can and when and if I’m asked. Otherwise, they’re on their own, and I know that’s the way they want it.

Is the Grass Greener?

I typically believe the grass is greener on the other side, just over the next hill. It may be self-delusional or wishful thinking, but it’s my nature, however torturous it can be, to believe there’s something better.

Such thinking can be the curse of people who are never satisfied with life and what they grassfield_greenerhave, always seeking, never arriving. Or it can be the motivation that leads to risk-taking, improvement and growth.

I have been seeking greener grass in my career through a marathon five-year journey, and now that I’m on the brink of making a transition from public relations to mental health counseling after what will be 22 graduate courses and two years of internships — and one collapsed full-time job along with its reliable income under all that weight — I am pretty confident that the fescue indeed will be brighter.

I also have been thinking that as I launch my new career in 2017 – which will include, ideally and ultimately, my own independent practice – that a new geographic location may offer greener pastures than the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis where I have been stationed for 28 years, business-, lifestyle-, scenery- and culture-wise.

My thinking is that the time to make a geographic change would coincide with my career transition, or at least relatively early in my new career, before becoming established in one place.

I also will be 54, far into midlife, by the time I graduate the counseling program. If I go somewhere else, I want to be young enough to become engaged in the fabric of the new community occupationally, socially, civically, recreationally and other ways, not just to live out retirement (which I don’t know if I will ever want to reach anyway).

I have already had people advise me against moving, telling me essentially that the grass is not greener, that the desire for something fresh and new is merely a cover for a compulsion to escape.

The idea of moving is complicated by several factors, primarily family concerns. Some factors I believe are manageable: I don’t have a big fear of change; the move wouldn’t necessarily be irreversible if it didn’t work out; I believe I could make new friends and keep old ones with some effort; I am confident I can earn a living and be successful starting a business, though research is needed.

But family, that is the hardest one to gauge. I’m a new empty-nester. Both of my kids are attending Maryland colleges. My daughter will graduate the same weekend I will in 2017. She may go to France to teach English; she may follow her boyfriend to an engineering job in Texas or beyond; or she may stay in Maryland. My son will have at least two years left. My extended family is small and scattered.

My wife’s family and her roots are in Maryland. She doesn’t want to leave. I understand. Many would argue that factor alone should kibosh the whole idea. And perhaps it will. Or perhaps there could be room for compromise and negotiation as events unfold and more is discovered.

There’s no doubt that the belief that the grass could be greener can complicate life and cause angst. But it’s also a belief that gives those prone to seeking an excitement about the unknown, about a new experience, about what could be around that next corner, over that next hill. Will it be emerald green, or drought-baked brown?

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