Alice in Mid-Life Wonderland
I'm not supposed to be writing this.
I promised myself I wouldn't.
Well over a decade ago, I wrote in my diary that I was never going to have a mid-life crisis - that, indeed, I was going to be the one helping others avoid such a terrible thing.
Life loves to laugh when we are so certain of ourselves.
Here I am, feeling like a mid-life Alice entering Wonderland - curious, overwhelmed, and quite lost.
Each day upon waking, I'm flooded with possibilities. But no, that sounds too positive for the way it feels. Each day, I'm flooded with choices.
I'm flooded with choices that are very mundane, but that will ultimately have large consequences. There are probably thousands of such choices that I cycle through day after day, such as these:
Do I ask the kids to spend the morning hours with me on this summer vacation day, doing something as a family, or do I let them call their friends as they are begging to do, set up playdates, turn on the computer, and get to work myself?
Do I shush my ongoing chatter about my weight and my tummy rolls and eat as I desire - mostly healthy, but not watching calories - and go to bed emotionally satisfied but perhaps disappointed by lack of discipline and the growing waistline, or do I make it a day of writing down what I eat, only eating what I know I need to eat for physical health (not emotional enjoyment), and go to bed feeling strong, still craving a drink or some chips, and perhaps a bit less physically heavy?
Do I check Facebook or open an actual book?
Do I get off the couch and start the laundry now, or finish what I'm reading and do whatever chore I remember to do when I'm done?
The consequences of each of these may seem tiny or inconsequential. But I can promise you - years of choosing one answer or the other day after day leads to a drastically different type of life and feelings over what is being lived.
There is no one telling me clear consequences of each path. No boss telling me, "do this or your fired". No teacher telling me, "learn this to get an A". There is no one who can tell me what is the "right" path for my life, no matter their opinions nor expertise. In fact, there is no right nor wrong choice for any of us - just consequences that are in line or out of line with your desired way of living (I touched upon this some in last week's post.)
Tons of choices, even more consequences, and I've sledge-hammered the walls of right and wrong that could have boxed it all into a neat little package of life instructions.
Thank god for coffee.
At first glance, having all of these choices might seem like the ultimate freedom. In some ways, it is. I am certainly aware how blessed I am to have them. (Every day I consider how fortunate I am to not have to choose between eating and paying rent, to even have the freedom of choice to consider what I want to do with my day instead of having 9 hours of soul-crushing work or the safety of my children to attend to.)
But according to multiple sources (personal stories and scientific research), such freedom can actually be as - and sometimes more challenging than having clear structure.
-Researcher Barry Schwartz refers to one challenge as "choice overload". What is this? "As the number of options increases, the costs, in time and effort, of gathering the information needed to make a good choice also increase,...The level of certainty people have about their choice decreases. And the anticipation that they will regret their choice increases.” (Source: https://www.fastcompany.com/3031364/why-having-too-many-choices-is-making-you-unhappy)
-In one study at Columbia University, consumers shopping at an upscale grocery store encountered a tasting booth that displayed either a limited (6) or an extensive (24) selection of different flavors of jam. Nearly 30% of the consumers in the limited-choice condition subsequently purchased ajar of the jam; in contrast, only 3% of the consumers in the extensive-choice condition did so. Fewer choices meant a decision was more likely to be made to purchase from those choices. (This could be interpreted as fewer choices meant one was more likely to act.) (Source: https://faculty.washington.edu/jdb/345/345%20Articles/Iyengar%20%26%20Lepper%20(2000).pdf)
-There is also a condition known as "decision fatigue", which occurs after you have to make several decisions. (Remember waking up with all of those choices? Decision after decision has to be made.) Per Wikipedia, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_fatigue) More choices, more exhaustion, more likelihood that you'll make "worse" choices as time goes on.
Even knowing all of this .... I can't have it any other way.
I cling to such a life of chaotic choice - a life of days that are spent responding to what needs responding to in that moment, a life that honors looking and living through many different perspectives, a life that examines deeply and lives in alignment with the ever-changing flow of what is learned.
So I wake up each day with all of these choices, with no one telling me what the consequences are, and the necessity to just CHOOSE. Over and over. And to live with what arises, and then to repeat, again and again and again.
Every day feels like a blessing and a crisis and a treasure trove of opportunities and an unbearable weight of consequences.
And coffee. Lots of coffee.
It is DEEPLY tempting to look for answers in the midst of all this chaos - to find a boss or a teacher to say "just do it this way and you'll be fine". There is no end to the number of self-help books and programs that would offer such answers.
And oh yeah, I've tried. I looked for answers from authors whose work made me shout, "yes!". I've gone to conferences and workshops. I've tried creative expression through various media, tried discovering myself and my passions through painting and art journaling and yoga.
All of these ventures have been amazing, and have certainly contributed to my life in one way or another.
And yet, like my declaration when I was young that I would never face a mid-life crisis, each attempt didn't have the outcomes I'd expected and hoped for. I didn't find My Path. The choices didn't disappear. Actually, the more that I came to know myself, the more expansive the choices became.
If anything, that's what I've been learning:
that life is complex and curious and surprising. The more you try to find answers to create a fixed happiness, the more you will struggle when inevitable changes do arise. HOWEVER, this isn't a pass to throw your hands up and feel as though you have no say in the matter. You have to creatively engage, every moment of every day, in order to not feel overwhelmed and swept away by life's changes.
It's a dance where you have to lead and allow yourself to be led, and there are no instructions, ...and the music keeps changing.
This isn't an easy path. Let's acknowledge that. Check out that Oprah.com article I just quoted if you have questions about the overwhelming obstacles to a mid-life peace.
But mid-life brings up unique awareness of, and questions around, death.
And if I had to choose between sleepwalking through life, drugging myself to ignore pains, living fairly easy but meaningless days, and stumbling into my deathbed, face exhausted and lined with tears from regrets
waking up each day of life, feeling each and every pain and joy and tiny emotion in between, living very challenging but deeply meaningful days, and walking with fear but peaceful acceptance into my deathbed, face gentle and lined with wrinkles from experience, ... well,
that's one choice that is easy to make.