Essay

You always have to figure out your life

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.

Down the path

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.

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30 thoughts on “You always have to figure out your life

  1. I also wonder if we are living in a time when we have to figure out things that used to be settled. Families are more transitional than permanent these days. The work environment is no longer stable and long term. We have more choices than earlier generations about how we will live and spend time. And FWIW, I am still figuring out things I should have had figured out a long time ago.

    • It’s hard for me to know for sure what life was like before — but it sure seems like postwar 20th century America was a bubble of solidity and stability. Life was better for average Americans in every major dimension. Also, I think we are seeing a generational turning and all the chaos and destruction that brings. I think we live in unprecedented times!

  2. Very thought provoking post Jim.

    Some immediate thoughts –

    I think JP makes a good additional point, there are so many more choices today, so we all have such an increase in cognitive load on a daily basis compared with the generation before us (I was born in the mid-70s, my parents were born in the mid-40s).

    I remember my dad saying to me on my 6th birthday something like enjoy being six, it doesn’t get any better. I think he meant that perhaps at six we have that perfect balance of enough knowledge and independence to know what we like and what we enjoy doing, but we have very little responsibility still, or the burdens that come with it.

    I sometimes look at our six month old baby and envy the beautiful simplicity of his life too!

    Something I seemed to figure out at a pretty early age is the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know!

    Anger is something I wrestle with too. Especially with the kids, when one of them brings out your anger with their behaviour, I feel angry at them, and angry at myself that I’m not able to stay calmer for longer, and “set a good example” at how to deal with anger. But then maybe always suppressing it isn’t the best approach anyway…

    • In some ways 25 was the best year of my life because of the autonomy and agency I had gained and the ignorance I had not yet lost.

      I have a quick temper over some things. I surprise myself. I try hard not to act in anger and mostly succeed.

      • I know what you mean Jim! I was trying to do the same thing when all of a sudden close elderly family members are getting sick. I know it’s a part of life but damn if it’s never easy my man.

  3. No one has it figured out in their teens. In my 20s, I always had the excuse…”I’m still in my 20’s, I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.” In my 30s, I was too busy raising a family, working hard and trying to live the dream to even think about figuring anything out. In my 40s, I was getting divorced and trying to pay for that divorce. Survival trumped any figuring. In my 50s, I finally paid off that divorce and spent most of the decade re-careering. I’m now 60. Maybe now I’ll figure it out. Maybe.

  4. Yes….life is a work in progress, a series of lessons, the trick is to try and learn the first time so we don’t have to repeat. Not sure I am really good at that!

  5. Sometimes I feel like I’ll always be trying to figure things out! :) Glad we have Little Women to turn to – Marmee always seems to have it figured out! This latest adaptation was pretty darn good I thought. I also must recommend the book, it never gets old.

    • I struggled with the flashback nature of the movie. My wife showed me the BBC/PBS there-part adaptation of the book and it made a LOT more sense.

      • Yes the BBC does a much better job taking on adaptations like that. Their version of Pride & Prejudice is absolutely the best and I always recommend it to everyone. I haven’t seen their Little Women but I would love to at some point!

  6. I was a very angry teenager. Berserker type anger. I’m 53 now, having found way to constrain my anger which has now been replaced by anxiety.

    There are so many variable to each decision with consequences unknowable in a world which lacks patience for failure and no forgiveness for mistakes.

    • I think I’ve always had a level of anger, I just denied it until recently. But I’ve never been berserker angry. I can’t imagine what that must be like to manage!

  7. Keith Walker says:

    Your age is merely a number, ignore it. What does change is your physical ability to do all you want to do and that is due to a lot of different reasons. Partly, your basic level of fitness which is what you have established over your lifetime – how much physically active you were when you were younger for example. I spent a lot of time in the hills and mountains of UK and Europe, rock climbing, mountaineering and generally spending a lot of time in the outdoors. Then genetics have a lot to do with it, I have a heart condition which I later learned was hereditory, fortunately modern surgery helped there so I am still around but not as fit as I thought I would be although the surgeon said my underlying level of fitness was a major help with the surgery Really what is important is to accept your limitations whatever they are, make the best of your situation and ‘get over it’
    I keep myself busy all the time, do a lot of voluntary work in the tourism industry which is good, the discipline of having to get up and get going every day is good for me and meeting and speaking with hundreds of people from literally all over the world keeps my mind active, I live in New Zealand now, Keep your sense of adventure, live your life and BE HAPPY.

    Mind you, ithelps to be able to live in paradise, this place is fantastic, I love it!

    • I’ve never been highly active. While I’ve never been heavy I’m not fit either. I wonder how that will play into my ability to do what I want as I age.

  8. DougD says:

    More wise words Jim, thanks.
    I feel lucky that my middle age has been relatively problem free so far, I think of my Grandfather who left Holland with a family of 8 at age 42, arrived in Canada with nothing and had to restart from scratch. He didn’t speak the language, or know how to drive. He never completely found his footing in the new world but his descendants did well.

    Things are good – for now.

    • That’s a common immigrant story — they moved here for opportunity, but really created it for their children. I hope your middle age remains problem free!!

  9. Scott Bennett says:

    I saw those middle-aged people in the prime of their lives the same way when I was young. Now that I am their age, almost all of them are dead. I never thought about that happening, but it did.

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