Childhood is all about learning to use your senses and body: just getting up to speed. Adolescence is about adjusting to other people: socializing and learning your place in the pecking order. Adulthood is where you take what you learned from the earlier stages to shape the rest of your life and, potentially, a partnership and family. If you’re not prone to partnering or procreating but are prone to philosophizing, as I am, you might spend more than the average amount of time trying to figure out what to do with yourself. Today’s post will take you through my process…one of them, anyhow.
Is All This Thinking Really Necessary?
I have friends who are not of an introspective bent at all. They just live and figure things out as they go along. This isn’t to say they’re haphazard about their actions, because they’re not…they just don’t think overly hard about who they are or how this or that action (or inaction) reflects on their life. Lucky them. From an early age, I took life seriously, realizing that we are conscious actors who have (reasonably) free will and who have to face/accept the consequences for what we do.
Honestly, there are days I wish my brain would shut the hell up. But here I am, having topped the big ridge of 50, and my overactive mind is still asking, to borrow a line from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” Or, if I’m not feeling quite that ambitious, I just ask, “What the heck can or should I do so that I like where my life is going?”
Which Way Do I Go?
This morning, I identified three paths I’ve tried over the years:
- Fix What’s Broken: Being self-conscious, guilt-ridden, and all too familiar with my sins and susceptibilities, this has been my default behavior. Diet is garbage? Eat better. Spending too much time at home or watching TV? Get out more. This is a negative approach, of course, because it assumes that something is wrong with me and it needs to be fixed. At some points in my life, usually when my overly emotional mind got the better of me, I put myself into therapy to get professional help fixing myself. It’s been ten years since I took that approach. The last professional I worked with, Dana the Wonder Shrink, managed to provide me with the mindset and the conscious or unconscious tools necessary to talk myself through problems so I don’t need to talk to a professional again. That doesn’t stop me from nitpicking my negative behaviors, however, or wanting to fix them like a good, problem-solving American engineer.
- Aspire to Something Better: This is a slightly more benign version of the first strategy: it assumes that I’m in reasonably good shape, but tries to identify a mission or goal to pursue to make life better or more worth living. I try this approach now and then, but always end up slacking off. Some days I don’t want to be a “better Bart,” nor do I have the energy to pursue Goal X. I just want to chill out and be slack. The Inner Critic doesn’t like that, however; and if I’m not pursuing some Greater Goal, he becomes quite an abusive jerk: “You should be writing. You should be exercising! You should be doing something more productive with your time!” And, again, the assumption of this strategy is that whatever or whoever I am, it’s not good enough…that I’m still broken.
- Radical Self-Acceptance: Then there’s the curious strategy of self-acceptance: just be happy as I am. Accept that I’m “enough,” whatever the hell that means. Go easy on myself if I have a bad day, either through my moods, actions, inaction, or failure to meet some personal goal or expectation. Be confident that I’m being the best Bart possible without worrying about others’ expectations or my own. I have, after all, accomplished most of the goals I’ve had for myself and am running out of things to try that interest me. This is a difficult path for the problem-solver, especially if he’s having a hard day. I trained myself in my early teens to take action if something in life was bothering me, rather than just sit and suffer helplessly as bad things happened to me. The thinking being, “If I’m taking action on a problem, I’m not helpless or passive.” And my Inner Critic, vicious b@st@rd that he is, still wants to poke at whatever’s going awry at that particular moment and say, “Something needs to be done!”
As I’m getting older, I’m realizing, slowly, painfully, that not every problem requires action. Some of my traits or behaviors are unlikely to change, no matter how hard I work at them. Some days are just going to be crappy, and there will be nothing I can do about them. I’m an emotional creature, and while I might be able to slow down how I respond to the feelings, I won’t be able to stop myself from experiencing them. Still: what the hell am I supposed to do with myself? “To be or not to be,” for me, was always an incomplete sentence: to be or not to be what? Whom?
This is what life can look like at “mid life,” or wherever 50 is on the actuarial charts: we never stop growing, we just grow in different directions, and the process is a little more under our control. The question merely shifts from, “What can I do?” to “What should I do, if anything?” Or maybe, if we’re lucky, those questions don’t vex us as much, and we can simply say, “This is who and where I am, what’s going to happen today?”