midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “loneliness”

Meaning in Midlife

July 1, 2020

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl published his famous book documenting his beliefs, thoughts and observations about his survival of the brutality and inhumanity of Nazi concentration camps to which many of his fellow prisoners succumbed when he was 41, just entering midlife.

More than any other theory or insight, it is Frankl’s that resonates with me most about our task at midlife. It is our responsibility to give our lives meaning, not the world’s chore. The external world will offer no such gift, though many will wait for that sign. Purpose won’t fall into our laps. Meaning won’t be created through timidity or accident. Lasting fulfillment will not be derived through vapidity, addiction, vacuous pleasure-seeking, avoidance, cautiousness or self-protection.

We must examine ourselves, take risks and be bold to create meaning, because, as Frankl concludes, that is what life expects from us. There is no one or nothing else to blame for those who come to this soul-crushing conclusion: “What’s the point?” Or this: “Life isn’t fair.” And: “Is this all there is?”

Those represent abdication of responsibility (and a license to shirk duties, sabotage relationships, indulge addictions, avoid self-reflection and stubbornly resist change, as if one’s thinking and behavior is intractable), for meaning is not bestowed on us, just because we are alive. It is cultivated through intention, commitment and effort, and often through suffering (as Frankl experienced), adversity, struggle, failure and disappointment. It is also a choice. It is up to each individual to believe his life matters.

These truths are hard to realize in our 20s and into our 30s, when we are letting go of youth, seeking a good time, chasing sex, courting love, coveting pleasure, repelling our frightening introduction to adult boredom, monotony and obligation, and sensing certain hopes and dreams dissolving. At the same time, we are discerning an occupation and career path, starting a family and finding our place in society. We may remain blissfully ignorant of, or willfully oblivious to, our blind spots concerning the ultimate questions life asks of us, as Frankl posits.

I’ve been a licensed professional counselor for nearly three years now. It has given me a window onto the vicissitudes of midlife. I’ve seen people in their 40s and 50s who PsychTodayProfile_1literally say they don’t know who they are, their identities tied up in someone else or poorly developed through desperate attempt to flee from a past of deprivation; who were tormented so much in childhood they can’t imagine being deserving of pursuing goals or a dream; who feel anxious, aimless and alone amid the crumbling of marriages and launching of adult children; who want to find happiness but have no idea how to define it; who struggle to escape the grip of abusive relationships; and who lose jobs, status, and financial security due to addiction.

Meaning in midlife is like trudging through a bog; those who use resources and ingenuity to get to the water will feel a lighter sense of being, more buoyant; those who are avoidant, stubborn or resistant will sink further into the quagmire and will churn laboriously, feeling hopelessly stuck.

Meaning serves us best when it is developed from within, rather than from performing the largely futile mental gymnastics to determine how the universe will define it for us, concludes a 2019 study on meaningfulness. The University of California, San Diego School of Medicine study, published online in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found the presence of meaning in life is associated with higher levels of happiness, better health, and possibly longevity, while the search for meaning in life may be associated with worse mental well-being and cognitive functioning.

“When you find more meaning in life, you become more contented, whereas if you don’t have purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out,” said the study’s senior author Dilip V. Jeste, MD, UC San Diego’s associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging.

As for me, I’m trying my best to live with a sense of meaning. It is a constant challenge. I’m grateful I made a career change to counseling in midlife; working with people to help them improve their lives and create meaning has increased meaning for me. That – and trying to develop, maintain and enhance relationships, always an area of struggle for me and in which I have boundless opportunity for improvement – gives me a sense that my life matters.

In the eight years since I wrote the first post for the MidlifeDude blog that became this book (All That’s Gone and Still Remains: Reflections of a Man at Midlife), I’ve experienced many of the transitions typical of midlife, described herein, inevitably re-imagining myself and re-inventing my life, with all the fears, risks and doubts that brings.

In addition to changing careers, I’ve experienced a major physical health challenge; the death of my mother and gradual decline of my father; failure to reach a dream (winning political office); the evolution of my two kids from teens to independent adults (Rebecca is an English teacher in France; Daniel is a computer software engineer for a large investment firm); confrontation of difficult and life-altering choices; dread of stagnation; a divorce (again); a geographic move to essentially start over; unanticipated singlehood and dating (with equal parts hope and trepidation); struggles with loneliness; worries about finances and retirement (though I have little interest in retiring); my own slow but sure physical falloff; and, at 57,  the no longer deniable reality of mortality.

Without meaning in midlife, I don’t know where I would be (in an emotional, mental and spiritual sense), and I shudder to think about that prospect. My task now and forevermore is to hold onto it any way I can.

 

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.

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