My father- and mother-in-law had stayed in their home too long. Not only could they not maintain it anymore, but they struggled with daily tasks in it.
They asked my wife to find them an assisted-living home. It turned out to be a giant project with lots of decisions to make. Even with my wife doing most of the work, my in-laws found the process to be overwhelming. My then-86-year-old father-in-law said, “I never thought that at my age there would be so many hard choices to make!”
I had been feeling exactly the same way about my own life at that time. I was not thrilled to learn that it never ends.
When I was a young adult, people in middle age seemed so together, so settled. They had their lives figured out! Now that I’m middle aged I know that middle-aged people have only been through enough to have figured out things about life that baffle young adults. We only seem together and settled to them. There’s so much more we haven’t figured out yet.
Where I work, everyone who reports to me is younger than me. Most of them are in their 20s, like my children. Sometimes they’ll tell me how much they appreciate my coaching because it clearly comes from a lot of experience. It feels great to hear them say it. One of my engineers actually said to me recently, “You seem to have it all figured out.” I chuckled for a second and said, “I’ve figured out a lot of things that you haven’t yet simply because I have a 30-year head start on you. But I’m still figuring things out. Chief among them: how do I stay relevant and employable in this young-man’s industry when I’m almost always the oldest guy in the room?”
That’s not the only thing I’m trying to figure out. I’m also figuring out how to stay physically healthy as my body ages and begins its natural decline. I’m also figuring out how to love and help aging parents and parents-in-law while simultaneously loving and helping our grown children step successfully into their adult lives. I’m figuring out how to love my new wife well through all of this, a woman I’m still getting to know. I’m also figuring out how to save enough for retirement after my expensive divorce and putting my kids through college have dramatically hindered my ability to do that during the prime saving years.
I’m also still figuring out how to manage my emotions after all these years. I’ve always had remarkably intense feelings. My wife and I went to see the film Little Women the day after Christmas. This was my first contact with this story, as I’d neither read the book nor seen any of the other film adaptations. In one scene, Jo fretted to her mother how much she struggled with her anger and said how much she admired her mom’s composure. Jo was shocked when her mother replied that she was angry nearly every day of her life, but after working at it for 40 years she had learned to manage it and present a placid face to the world.
I don’t believe she means that she denies her anger, only that in the face of it she chooses to behave in ways that don’t tear people down.
I identify with that middle-aged woman. I want to be able to feel what I feel but make effective choices anyway. Even after 52 years I haven’t entirely figured that out. My feelings can still overwhelm me and render me inert — or, worse, incredibly unkind — until they pass.
Maybe what I’m figuring out in middle age is that you always have to figure out your life. I’m glad I’ve figured this out now, so that if I’m fortunate to live as long as my father-in-law I won’t be surprised by what I have to figure out then.