midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

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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.

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Minimalism: More Freedom, Less Crap – Material and Otherwise

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around… Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself.

— The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

In a medical office waiting room, I stumbled across a reference to a book that piqued my interest, Everything That Remains, a memoir by two Dayton, Ohio young men with working class upbringings and early adulthood, ladder-climbing, wealth-accumulating ambitions, about their gravitation from the timeworn path toward an illusory standard of The American Dream to something more introspective and streamlined called Minimalism.

I found it at the library and read it. You might think the rest of this essay will be a screed about the evils and vacuousness of materialism and consumerism, and the beauty and simplicity of deprivation and Idealism, and a door-to-door-Bible-salesman-like proselytization aimed at convincing you to chuck the former’s wanderings through a vast commercial wasteland in favor of a holier life spent in the latter’s pure Garden of Eden. Breathe a sigh of relief; it won’t be.

The book did put a name to the broad ideas about how I’d prefer to live, though. And I believe I’m largely putting those ideas into practice.

When people hear the term “Minimalism” applied to a lifestyle, it does seem to conjure the image of someone just barely better off than Fed Ex plane crash survivor Tom Hanks’ character stranded on an uninhabited island in Castaway, fashioning shoes from palm fronds, feverishly twirling a stick on a rock to start a fire, and squeezing meager marine nourishment out of a shellfish speared with a homespun, sharpened bamboo pole. They think Minimalism means living a Spartan, monk-like, stripped-down existence: doing without, possessing no things, having no fun, staring at four bare walls from a lonely chair, living in a quixotic commune, scraping by on the minimum, spending no money – hell, making no money! It doesn’t.

What Minimalism means to me, as The Minimalists describe it, is eliminating the clutterFightClub_2 from my life – figuratively and literally – so that all I have left and all that I focus my attention and physical, mental and emotional energy upon are things that add value and meaning to my life. The Minimalists love the book/movie Fight Club, about an underground, subversive group of men breaking free from the soul-numbing shackles imposed by societal, cultural and corporate expectations, citing this quote from Fight Club’s charismatic leader Tyler Durden: “The things you own end up owning you.”

Eliminating oppressive, useless clutter that bogs you down applies to relationships, careers, meaningless pursuits and time-consuming obligations – real or imagined – as well as physical objects. That’s the freedom to which The Minimalists refer.

Minimalism is about breaking free from corporate and cultural influences that tell you who you should be, how you should act, what you should believe and how you should define success. It’s about the freedom to define your own path toward happiness and fulfillment, regardless of the disapproval and negativity you may receive from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It’s about the freedom to take risks, the freedom to make choices, the freedom to make mistakes and fail, and the freedom to take full responsibility for all of that in service of living a more courageous, authentic, satisfying and inspiring life.

It so happens that my recent movement toward Minimalism – a transition to a new career in mental health counseling from public relations, a move to a smaller area with a simpler lifestyle – has coincided with a more Spartan lifestyle, more out of necessity than by design. I have moved from a 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom townhouse to a 1-bed, 1-bath apartment. I am earning a salary that is less than half of my last full-time job salary, the result of the career change and starting on a bottom rung in a region with lower wages. I am not “livin’ large” – I’m driving a 15-year-old economy car; watching the smallest-possible, decade-old flat-screen TV, donated to me by a friend, on a no-frills cable TV package; and sleeping on a real bed only after weeks on a constantly-deflating air mattress, because I had no bed to take on my move – but I’m livin’ free and livin’ well.

I have no debt, save for my mortgage, the house I moved from but still own, and which still adds value to my life. I feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose in my new career than my former, so much so that retirement holds no allure for me at age 54, which I consider a good thing. I am pursuing activities and relationships that enhance my life.

I am a proponent of Minimalism, not because I want to latch on to the latest fad or lifestyle trend that may be featured on the Today show or in chic lifestyle magazines, but because my  re-evaluation of the course of my life during the reflective midlife phase was pointing me in the direction of Minimalism before I realized the philosophy had been assigned a pithy label. I am striving to be a Minimalist – not impoverished, deprived, lonely, isolated, rigid, overly austere, Utopian, cultist, weird, eccentric, anti-social, anti-consumerist, or anti-technologist (think Unabomber) – but free to embrace and fully pursue the things I value.

This quote from Minimalism’s emblematic movie, Fight Club, captures the undercurrent stimulating the Ohio natives’ cum Montana entrepreneurs’ lifestyle movement:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

The Fog of Mental Illness: I Know There’s Another Person in There Somewhere

Of all the midlife tasks I’ve encountered, caring for my ailing mother was hands down the most difficult.

That includes two job layoffs; getting fired from another job after seven years because of a personal conflict with a boss; a dispiriting divorce; a career change necessitating a six-year slog through graduate school; and a devastating injury requiring more than a year of rehabilitation.

I use the term “caring” loosely. I’m not the greatest caregiver – at least that’s what my first wife concluded.

I was the typical “sandwich” during midlife, raising kids while becoming a surrogate parent to my parent.

My mother tested my love, patience, tolerance and temper, down to my last nerve. And I have to acknowledge, when my mother was in her greatest times of need and was in her most depressed, ornery and bedeviling states, it was not me who truly was her prime caregiver and manager, it was my patient-as-a-saint second wife. I just tried – sometimes unsuccessfully – to follow her lead with an open heart and mind.

Now that my mother has died, I feel a little more freedom to tell a deeply personal family story, significantly abbreviated. I recognize most people wouldn’t air their family’s laundry, would keep it tight in the family, in the shadows. As a counselor, it’s part of my job to bring mental illness out of the shadows, to reduce the stigma. My mother had mental illness.

My mother’s depression occurred during various stages of her life, manifesting later in her life as bipolar disorder, meaning she cycled between depression and manic, or hyper, behaviors. The combination of mental illness and accumulating physical ailments, including intractable rheumatoid arthritis, fueled each other, contributing to an unremitting downward spiral in my mother’s final years and resulting in her sudden death from an undetermined cause at age 73.

Depression first hit my mother full force in her 30s, coinciding with her divorce. From my ages of 11 to 15, my mother suffered from several bouts of severe depression requiring a couple of months-long hospitalizations. When she was home as a single mother during that period, often she was barely functional, leaving my younger brother and me to largely fend for ourselves. There were times I was convinced she would die as a young woman, as her lack of appetite and insomnia caused her to wither away physically and treatment did not seem to work.

She eventually recovered later in my teen years, entered the workforce and went on to live a reasonably productive and stable life. She was a beautiful – but complicated (aren’t we all?) — person. She was a good friend to others, my number one supporter, and cared for me deeply. She wore her passions on her sleeve, such as politics. If not for her, I likely never would have run for political office, of course as a Democrat, the only party for her.

But she also carried demons from childhood that inhibited her life, and were amplified when her mental state was out of balance. Her parents were critical of her; she was never good enough, a “bad girl.” Her self-esteem suffered, compounded by her feelings of shame because of her family and home’s relatively impoverished condition. Her parents also were overly worried and fearful – neurotic, my mother would say – and as a result, over-protective. My mother responded in a positive way – by rebelling, asserting her independence, being stubborn, acting willfully, behaving in sneaky ways, including probably fibbing, to avoid her parents’ disapproval, and satisfy herself.

While those traits likely served her well during a challenging childhood, I believe they may have made her harder to deal with in later adulthood when mental illness flared, though dealing with anyone with bipolar disorder can be a nightmare regardless of personality characteristics. My mother had long periods of stability, stretching many years. But when in the grips of a bipolar episode, the illness was ferocious, grabbing hold of her like a rag doll and dragging her around at its whim. She was a wild card – we never knew what we would get from day to day.

During one manic episode, we had to literally restrain our mother from chasing police cars down streets in Washington, DC, so convinced she was that they were heading to Capitol Hill to intervene in a terrorist attack and she wanted to be part of the action. Without intervention, we were sure she would end up injured, abused, jailed or dead.

What many people don’t understand about dealing with people with significant mental illness is how difficult it is to get the sufferer help. Hospitalization is strictly voluntary, except in cases where it is evident the person is a risk of harm to herself or others, a standard that is quite difficult to prove to law enforcement.

During my mother’s two serious manic episodes in later adulthood, when her behavior was wildly erratic and mood swings drastic – essentially, like dealing with a person possessed by another being — we struggled mightily to get her to voluntarily commit to hospitalization so she could be stabilized. She resisted stubbornly for weeks on end, at times perversely turning those who loved her and were trying to help her into her enemies, behaving belligerently toward us and targeting us for biting comments, as if mental illness obliterated her filter and her subconscious assumed dominance.

She nearly torpedoed the sale of her house, a project on which her family had worked for months to get her into a better situation, where she would be safer physically, less isolated socially, and perhaps even receive care on site. She made the Realtor a target of her ire, as she did numerous medical and therapeutic professionals, out of frustration and distrust, believing they had consistently failed her or attempted to deceive her.

It was incidents and behaviors like these and more that caused my fuse to burn short and my temper to erupt more frequently than I like to admit. Even though I knew it was mental illness acting and talking, not my real mom, my frustration and despair at my seeming inability to influence a change or make a difference sometimes overwhelmed me and made me feel despondent and helpless. Counterproductively, I often relieved my anger by taking it out on my mother, feeling terrible afterward.

At the time she died – alone in her new apartment, with no one aware – she had come out of a manic phase and was stabilizing mentally and emotionally. As much as she fought in later adulthood against receiving professional help and being hospitalized – surely the result of wretched hospitalization experiences in her 30s – I believe she realized deep down that she needed help, that she couldn’t conquer the illness through sheer strength of will, that the people who cared about her had her best interests at heart. Because each time, after dragged out, emotionally exhausting battles, she did submit to voluntary hospitalization, and got better.

Unfortunately, her last go-round with the disorder must have taken a huge toll. She never got the chance to fully recover and get back to a normal life. We’ll never know what impact her mental illness had on her ultimate physical demise.

Unfortunately for me, my memories of my mother are clouded by that final intense, dramatic chapter, by the veil of mental illness shrouding the real person, when, try as I might have to be forgiving, accepting, patient and understanding, I was not always on my best behavior and didn’t always hold my tongue, just like my mother. And, perhaps worst of all, I never had the chance to apologize, forgive or say goodbye.

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.

A Walk in the Woods

Sometimes there’s no better elixir than the woods.

Tough week at work? Traverse a path. Relationship problems? Hike a hill. The winter blues? Trek along a river.

Or even when you don’t feel distressed by anything at all, a walk in the woods can only uplift your mood.

I’ve recently had a lot on my mind, having just made a major life change by moving in midlife to a new place away from friends and family and starting a new job in a new FrancesMarionForest_PalmettoTrailcareer. My life is in transition. So last week, I went to explore a really big wood in my adopted home state of South Carolina – the 260,000-acre Frances Marion National Forest.

At the outset of my hike, I did what I am wont to do: ruminated over things that are constantly on my mind, despite my desire to tame the gremlins while in the presence of natural beauty. I know I’m not alone in engaging in over-active self-talk – we all have ongoing conversations in our own heads at some volume – but I would like to tell my voice to just chill out sometimes.

The wood worked its magic. About 30 minutes and two wrong turns into my hike along a 7-mile trail, my self-conversation quieted, I stopped looking at my watch and I began observing – tall stands of forest pines and expansive views of marshlands along the FrancesMarionForest_SwampIntracoastal Waterway. I realized I wasn’t in a rush; I could walk as long as I wanted. Time became irrelevant; I relinquished the nearly constant need to be on the clock. I completed the last two hours of my walk with relatively few conscious thoughts other than what I was experiencing in the moment. It was rejuvenating to be free from intrusive thoughts. By the time I finished, I felt great – relaxed, gratified, naturally euphoric, tired in a good way.

In my counseling, I have often counseled clients who are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety to take a walk in the woods, whether it’s a 30-mile-wide national forest or a trail along an urban stream. The acts of using one’s senses in nature, spending time in daylight and sunlight and being physically active and energized can have healing effects mentally and emotionally. Make those acts a habit, and symptoms can be reduced.

Before I moved, a friend and I, along with his dog, had made a regular practice of riding bikes on a trail along the Patapsco River in Maryland. My friend would marvel at the beauty of the winding river and the hills rising from it, the rocks embedded in the hills and the impressive construction of the century-plus-old railroad tunnels. The ritual would be fully realized if a train ran by while we were resting by the tracks, so we could be awed by its length and wonder what freight it was carrying.

That trail became a sacred place for me and my friend. As I finished my walk in the woods, I thought about my friend and how he would like trekking this forest, and about the incomparable value of a sacred place where time slows down and your head clears up.

On Being Alone: An Unanticipated Thanksgiving

I had moved into my new apartment in Summerville, SC just five days before Thanksgiving and two weeks into a new job, which I took to start a new career in counseling, more than 500 miles from where I had called “home” for nearly three decades, Maryland. It was too soon to fly back to see family for the holiday, and too ominous to face the Thanksgiving Day and subsequent weekend travel frenzies. Besides, my kids were scattered – my daughter in France for her post-college job teaching English and my son visiting his mother in Texas.

So I resigned myself to that most melancholia of situations that Americans seek desperately to avoid – spending a hyped holiday alone. I was too new in my adopted hometown to be taken in as a Thanksgiving orphan – barely anybody even knew I existed here, save for my new work colleagues and one college alum.

I was destined to join those invisible people who had nowhere to go for a holiday that screamed Americana, with its pilgrim, culinary, family, togetherness and football customs, and nobody coming to visit them – the stereotypical widowers, spinsters, shut-ins, homeless, outcasts, infirm, aged, black sheep, oddballs, cat ladies, mountain men, lone wolves, eccentrics, hermits, hoarders , rejects and recluses.

I searched for a volunteer opportunity to serve meals to the less fortunate on Thanksgiving Day, but couldn’t find one. A big meal-serving charity in Charleston already was overloaded with volunteers and could accept no more, and other organizations needed help in the days before Thanksgiving. I settled on volunteering for the Turkey Day Run 5K in Charleston, SC, a big fund-raising event. That got me out at 6 a.m. and occupied me on a chilly, rainy day until 10:30 a.m.

For the preceding week, a common salutation with clients at work, exchanged both ways, was “Have a good Thanksgiving,” or, “So what are you doing for Thanksgiving?” constant reminders that I was doing nothing for Thanksgiving and that Thanksgiving, if I stayed strong mentally and emotionally, would be no worse than any other day, but certainly not “good” or “happy” in the traditional sense of celebrating a sacred time with friends and loved ones.

When I returned to my apartment, I did what anyone would do on a rainy day holiday

EmptyApt

My “chair” and “table” in my Spartan apartment

with nowhere to go and nobody to entertain – took a long nap to sleep some of the day away. If spending a uniquely American holiday alone was melancholy to begin with, it was amplified by my current Spartan living conditions. I have no furniture – none. My place is bare, except for the air mattress serving as my bed, a food cooler as my chair and a plastic container as my dining table. I could not fit any furniture in my car on the move down, and I won’t be returning “home” to retrieve furniture and pack a rental truck for another two weeks. Not even a TV or a stereo or Internet. Silence. Just me and books. On my Thanksgiving menu: catfish and frozen sweet potato fries.

When I awoke around 4, I decided to get out of my threadbare confines and bring my computer to the apartment complex’s clubhouse, where I could get Internet connection and watch the football games. I predicted I would have the place to myself, as other residents would be celebrating Thanksgiving with friends and family elsewhere. As I approached the clubhouse, I saw a bunch of people mingling inside.

Oh, great. Booked for a private party,” I thought. “Looks like back to my apartment for catfish and a book.”

But I decided to check to make sure.

“Is this a private party?” I asked the woman who greeted me at the door.
“No, come on in. We’re The Misfits,” she replied.

“Are you sure?” I asked, still feeling as though I was crashing a closed event. “I didn’t bring anything.”

“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got plenty,” she replied.

I entered to find about 40 people, from toddlers to grandparents, celebrating around a veritable Thanksgiving buffet feast. Turns out, The Misfits were what my greeter called “implants” – well, she meant “transplants,” not people with dental work – people at the apartment complex and their friends who had moved to South Carolina from elsewhere and had no family nearby. They had been gathering for holidays and other events for several years.

I stayed for several hours, stuffing myself, watching football, and meeting friendly people in a festive environment. It sure beat being alone, and made for a surprising, grateful Thanksgiving.

That said, being alone is not dreadful. It does not equate to sadness, depression, or even necessarily loneliness. It’s not to be feared. I often embrace solitude, and have done and continue to do many things by myself, even though I enjoy social activities, spending time with friends and being a family man. Enjoying solitary pursuits and engaging in social endeavors are not mutually exclusive. I’m an introvert. I am often more inspired by things I do alone than energized by being around lots of people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like a good party or social outings.

Being alone is about being comfortable with the self, and knowing that it is a condition that one can change if desired. It is about finding things to do that one values and from which one derives pleasure when undertaken alone. It is about feeling worthy and valuable as a human being, even if one is alone, at least temporarily. It is about being comfortable turning inward and exploring the messages of one’s own soul – the often hidden wants as well as the often elusive sense of peace and acceptance, the true self – rather than constantly craving and responding to external stimuli. It is about having the chance to slow down, quiet the mind, reflect and recharge, and direct one’s energies toward passions, free from the pulls and distractions of others’ wants, needs, expectations and demands.

By twist of fate, my 2017 Thanksgiving combined both ends of the spectrum – aloneness and togetherness. I give thanks for both in my life.

Good Money

When I would tell people I got a new job to start a new career in another state and would be moving, one of the first questions they’d inevitably ask was, “How much will you be making?” Or, so as to be less crass, “Will you be making good money?”PileOfMoney

In our competitive, capitalist, consumerist society, it is only natural that money is the first thing that comes to mind when someone accepts a new position. To be sure, why would anyone choose to move more than 500 miles and three states away for a job if not to make good money?

I had three answers for that question, and all had validity:

  1. Yes, of course I would be making good money, because there’s no such thing as bad money.
  2. No, I wouldn’t be making good money, compared to the much better money I had made in previous jobs.
  3. None of your friggin’ business what kind of money!

The answer is not simple. My job as a therapist under a two-year provisional license pays considerably less than my previous positions in public relations. I am at the entry level in the mental health field, where salaries and pay, though variable depending upon many factors, are relatively low compared to many other professions.

However, my job pays considerably more annually than the series of Gig Economy counseling internships and part-time and temporary jobs I had pieced together for the final two years of my counseling master’s degree program after leaving my full-time job. So viewed from that perspective, my new job does pay good money, and I’m grateful for that.

In midlife, we evaluate what we’ve already done and what we’d like to do with our remaining years, which no longer seem infinite. Priorities change, as we shift from the achievement-oriented, ladder-climbing, self-focused goals of younger adulthood to an increased desire to make a contribution to others, pursue meaningful activities and leave a legacy. My change to a career in counseling reflects the internal re-evaluations of the midlife transitional period.

When you realign priorities and make a significant change, there will be sacrifices. For me, one of those was money – good money. I knew that consequence of my decision from the start, when I embarked on the graduate program nearly six years before actually entering the counseling field. But I ignored that inescapable fact at the time.

Now that my new level of pay is a reality, I’m adjusting my life and budget to match. I may not yet qualify as a full-fledged Minimalist, but I’ve moved closer to that end of the scale in my spending, decision-making and thinking.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of making money – good money – or pretend I don’t care. It certainly helps in many ways and I always endeavored to make good money – at least the best I could in any given circumstance. I’d certainly rather be well-off and feel secure than poor and living anxiously paycheck to paycheck. Wouldn’t everyone? Fortunately, I have some financial cushion, enough to allow me to overcome the financial anxieties of making a career change, but far below some golden threshold to claim money doesn’t really matter.

But making ever more good money – however one defines it — isn’t the end-all be-all path to an ever more glorious Shangri-La, as a 2010 Princeton University study concluded. The Princeton researchers found that no matter how much more than $75,000 per year that a person earned, their “degree of happiness,” or emotional well-being did not increase. It also found that, though earning less than $75,000 in and of itself did not cause people to feel more unhappy, it did magnify and intensify negative feelings from life problems they had.

Beyond the practical realities of how I spend and the reduced margin of discretionary money available to save or burn compared to my previous work life, I’ve had to make a humbling mental adjustment: Here I am, in my 50s, peak earning years, with two graduate degrees, making less than half of what I made at my last full-time job, and less than or equivalent to many workers with much less education or years of experience than I have. Yet, I would still contend I am making good money, not bad money.

I gain fulfillment and a sense of purpose and contribution from counseling people and helping them improve their lives. Work is stimulating, rewarding and challenging, which I couldn’t always claim before. I look forward to my future in this new profession, and its many opportunities for learning, growth and entrepreneurship.

For those reasons, I know I can take this to the bank: I am making good money, with the promise of better money to come. When you truly enjoy what you are doing for a living and apply yourself with a passion because of that, the money naturally tends to follow. Good money.

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.

Facing the Music

As my daughter Rebecca and I were discussing her sociology class on adolescence, she tangentially announced, “You and mom did a good job raising me.”

Surprised by an out-of-the-blue compliment, I asked, “What makes you say that?”

Rebecca explained that she does not view herself as materialistic, implying instead that she values experiences and relationships above things. We provided for her needs and many wants, but we didn’t overindulge, and didn’t replace our caring, attention and adam-reb_foyeweddingpresence with materials, she was saying.

As a 21-year-old sociology major graduating from the University of Maryland in four days, she has learned about inequality, justice, race, poverty, privilege, human development and other similar topics, helping her become more insightful and introspective about her own life, and more astute about distinctions among individuals and communities.

I was happy to hear Rebecca praise our parenting, since her mom and I broke up when she was 9. My biggest fear about our divorce was that it would cause emotional and psychological problems for Rebecca and younger brother Daniel.

“So we did a lot of things right,” I said, fishing for more praise.

“Yeah, but not everything,” she said, adding the inevitable disclaimer.

“What didn’t we do so well?”

“There were things I haven’t talked to you about.”

We were headed to an Easter celebration, so there wasn’t time, and it wasn’t the right time, to get below the surface. But I kept the conversation in my memory, committed to return to it.

I did that last weekend, inviting Rebecca to have an open discussion with me as a young adult, reflecting on her experiences as a pre-teen and teenager, the positive and the negative, the gratifying and the disappointing, the supportive and the hurtful.

That conversation, I recognize, will require certain things of me, to be constructive rather than destructive or dismissive: I’ll want to approach it as a listener, not a talker, and with an open-minded, non-judgmental, non-defensive attitude. Because I know my temptation, like any parent told in retrospect they weren’t as magnificent as they believed, will be to explain or justify or rationalize or correct the record, which would only serve to shut down Rebecca, diminish openness, trust and honesty and invalidate her experiences and feelings. My current training in counseling should help me control such urges.

I would like to give Rebecca the chance to have an open forum with me without fear of reprisal or disengagement. I believe it’s important to transition into our adult relationship with everything in the open, past issues revealed and understood, nothing left unsaid, as the foundation for our future interactions and communications. It’s the key to an emotionally healthy, genuine father-daughter relationship.

I don’t know what she will say to me. I don’t know if I’ll be surprised. I don’t know what emotions it will trigger. But I want to hear it. I know I had good intentions throughout her childhood, and did my best as a father. But I also know I made mistakes. And I know the fact of divorce created situations and triggered emotions that were difficult, or perhaps impossible, to manage without having an impact on the kids.

Facing the music about my role and impact as a divorced (and remarried) father in my daughter’s life will increase my awareness and, I hope, strengthen my ability to relate to Rebecca. It’s worth whatever discomfort or ego deflation it may cause me.

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