Part of becoming a mature human being is recognizing your limits. As much as you’d like to grow up to be a race car driver/astronaut/movie star/nuclear physicist/superhero, your odds of attaining any one of those destinations decreases dramatically when you try to tack another one on.
Life is largely an exercise in choosing one thing over another. As much as we’d like to embrace everything awesome, saying “yes” to one thing is functionally rejecting something else. The harder we try to cling to everything, the less we can really grasp. Much as we’d like to help everybody, sometimes trying to help one person hurts another. Sometimes trying to help someone just lets them stay stuck and keeps them from developing their own strength. Sometimes, the heroic thing to do is letting go.
I hate letting go.
I’m of an age now where midlife crises happen. Where my friends and peers sometimes ditch jobs, relationships, and sundry other things on a quest to “find themselves.” At the halfway mark in life (if they’re lucky), they freak out because they aren’t sure they’ve been running the right direction all this time.
Meanwhile I’m in the middle of National Novel Writing Month, literally in the middle of a novel, when I suddenly realize I don’t want to be writing this particular novel right now. The novel is not such a big deal. I’ve learned over this particular year that if the novel is worth writing, I have the ability to stick with it till completion. It’s not a “no,” it’s a “not now.”
The thing is, for some things, “not now” ends up becoming “never” because some things have a shelf life. I’m probably never going to see The Civil Wars in concert, so the “not now” decision I made when they toured in Louisville a year or so ago ended up being probably the last time they’ll tour at all. I didn’t have any way of knowing that. In the larger scheme of things, that particular “not now” becoming a “never” is something I can live with. It’s disappointing. It’s not exactly deathbed regret fodder. I’m reaching a point now where I am trying to eliminate as many of those as I can before they happen. When it’s all over, when I’m wiser and I’m older, I hope the decisions I’m making now hold up. Only time will tell.
About ten years ago, as I was transitioning from my 20s to my 30s, I had a lot of similar life-altering choices. Getting therapy, when it would have been easier to keep blaming other people and situations for my problems. Staying married and working on being a better partner, when it would have been easier to write off my “starter marriage.” Having a second kid, when my mom’s terminal illness and other issues at the time made it seem like an awful time to make that kind of emotional investment. In every case, taking the harder path has paid such incredible dividends in just a decade.
“Finding yourself” is all well and good. But nothing replaces “becoming yourself”: the long, slow process of making daily decisions to build up a character strong enough hold up under the pressure of life in a fallen world. I still need a lot of grace, but I also don’t crumple under pressures that would have flattened me ten years ago. Which is a great thing, since it looks like life has definitely not decided to start throwing me softballs now, just because I’m older.
I’m getting a late start on my fiction writing dream. I reached a point in the past two years when I realized that if I keep giving that a “not now,” the odds of it becoming a “never” increase dramatically. So I’m pursuing it. But how I pursue it matters. It feels like my margin for error is eroded to a razor’s edge, which probably makes me more anxious about the decisions I make about my writing. It gives them a weight they wouldn’t have had in my 20s or 30s. To paraphrase a quote a current movie trailer, “How we win matters.” If the fear from that late start starts driving my decisions, I might still achieve that dream, but what will the cost be?
My kids are nine and sixteen. I’ve had to make parenting decisions in the last week based on the understanding that I have a limited window when I can still make certain decisions for them. And the recognition that they’re not mature enough to make all their own decisions yet, even the sixteen year old. I look back at my own teen self, and some interventions my parents chose not to make, and how those choices rippled forward… and if I can proactively help my kids avoid some of their own midlife and/or deathbed regrets… well, yeah.
The clock is ticking. And there’s no turning it back.
But at least I’m wide awake for the journey.