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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Personal

The feelings are the path

We sold the rental house we owned up in Lebanon. The deal closed Friday.

You might remember that after a longtime tenant moved out early this year and we started renovations to rent it again, a beam supporting part of the house failed. Read about it here. Our son and his buddy, who have some experience repairing foundations, thought they could tackle it. But they soon realized it was over their heads.

As we looked through the rest of the property we realized it needed lots of costly repairs and updates, probably including demolishing the garage.

Leaning garage

After everything else we’ve lived through in the last three years, the stress of this was staggering. It overwhelmed us. We needed to step back. We locked the doors and walked away for a month, pretending the house did not exist.

This wasn’t the only thing going on in our lives. Both Margaret and I started new jobs this summer. Margaret’s mom passed away. There’s much more, equally impactful, but it all involves stories that belong more to other people than to me and so aren’t mine to tell.

Margaret and I finally agreed that we have neither the emotional nor the energy reserves to handle all of these rental-house projects. There was no good way for us to pay for it all anyway. So we got a Realtor, listed the house, and waited anxiously. After several weeks a flipper made a barely acceptable offer, which we eagerly accepted.

This house hanging over our heads was a source of constant worry and anxiety for me. I felt like I was being stalked by a wolf.

I’m easily anxious, and I feel things intensely. I probably learned to be anxious along the way but I was born with deep feelings.

I wish I had learned to handle my feelings when I was younger. But my family didn’t know what to do with me when I was lost in deep feelings, especially anger and sadness. It just wasn’t in their wheelhouse. What I learned to get through those formative years, unfortunately, was that I had to stuff my deep feelings down, put them away, pretend they weren’t happening.

As I entered adulthood I found this left me handicapped in forming healthy relationships and in handling stress.

Since then I’ve done a lot of work and have come a long way toward being able to handle myself. I learned that when my feelings run deep I need to pause and give them space to run their course. While I’m experiencing deep feelings, I don’t always think straight. Trying to think then often only prolongs those feelings needlessly. It’s best to just notice them, feel them, let them roll. When they subside and my head is clear, I can make good choices about what to do.

It often takes a lot of time for intense feelings to pass — hours, sometimes more than a day. I hate it. It robs me of the energy and attention to do things I’d rather do, and delays me taking needed actions on whatever triggered the feelings.

But I’ve made it work, and by my late 40s I had found greater equanimity than I’d ever known. Learning how to do this was the best gift I ever gave myself.

These last three years put me to the test. It has truly been one incredibly difficult thing after another. I didn’t have time to process one thing before two or three more piled on.

I’ve had to keep pushing forward. Hard choices kept needing to be made, and we made them. We had to keep working so that we could stay fed, clothed, and sheltered. Everyday life had to be lived — groceries bought, cars repaired, grass mowed, dinners prepared, bills paid.

Layered difficult feelings about our various challenges soon intertwined, became indistinct. I was just raw all the time and could only vaguely explain why.

I tried to cope with alcohol, a dead-end street that I detailed here and here. I tried to cope by escaping with Margaret on getaway weekends. Those were good for us, but only temporarily suspended reality. I tried to cope with leaning into my hobbies. I may have made more photographs in 2019 than in any other year of my life.

But mostly I’ve coped by being angry. Really angry. I’ve wanted to blame somebody, anybody for all of this. I’ve had to work very hard to keep from it.

I’ve also been well beyond my capacity for a long time. I’m in a sort of defense mode, pushing away hard everything that feels like a threat. I’ll bet if I could think more rationally about things I’d see most of them aren’t threats.

I finally figured out about a month ago that being in this angry defense mode feels safer than letting go and feeling what I actually feel about all that’s gone on.

So I’ve gone back to fundamentals. When a wave of hard feelings comes, I let it. I don’t judge it, I don’t try to figure out what triggered it, I don’t even label it as any particular feeling. I just let it happen.

Fortunately, these waves tend to come when I have quiet time alone, rather than in the middle of dinner or a meeting at work. Unfortunately, a lot of my quiet time alone comes after bedtime. I let the feelings roll for an hour, maybe two. But then if they haven’t passed I take one of the pills the doctor prescribed and am asleep within a half hour.

But while the feelings roll, I hold them loosely, and muster as much compassion as I can that I have to feel them at all. That we’ve had to experience all these serious difficulties. That we don’t know when good times will return.

These feelings are not here to harm me; they are not my enemy. They are not obstacles on my path. They are the path.

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