In the middle of life, I found myself within a dark wood.
Nothing is worth more than this day.
What we expect or want to have happen in life can be at odds with what actually happens. Why am I surprised by this truth? I am frustrated when
- I can’t do what I used to- not as quickly or easily or not at all, OR
- the truths that are self-evident to me are not to others OR
- plans (hopes; dreams; expectations) don’t materialize.
Midlife and beyond can feel like an ever widening chasm between what is hoped for and what is.
Expectations may refer to larger than life dreams over which we have some control to make happen or let go. But it is the smaller every day occurrences and encounters that stop us short when we are thrown a curve ball of thwarted expectations. I get irritated for example when I can’t run as fast as I used to. The problem has nothing to do with running; it’s the sense of irrevocable change moving in a direction not of my choosing. As these kinds of experiences accumulate, we can without realizing it, find ourselves in a dark wood of chronic disappointment; hooked on a story that life- be it a relationship, our abilities; or work- is going down the drain.
There’s no single moment in life to mark the shifting winds of change. Rather, such changes unfold unevenly in a variety of forms: trying to recall if someone actually told me what they said they did; dismay at yet another technical skill I need to master when the way I was doing things worked fine; re-configuring relationships with family and friends; noticing our bodies don’t work in the same way. It’s as if the rules of the game changed and no one told us. Doubling our efforts or striving to do more is like trying to move a brick wall. It only results in exhaustion.
What if we could imagine the changes in our lives, the disappointments, and limitations – as a good thing, rather than frustratingly bad news? In coming to terms, we open up space for re-imagining the intersection between expectations and reality.* Coming to terms underscores the need to accept the hand we are dealt- whether that’s a difficult person; intractable work situation; changing physical and cognitive abilities; or whatever- and shift the frame to our advantage.
Life changes are ubiquitous. We only notice them more as we get older because that is when some (not all) of our limitations become more apparent. And…we sense there may be more to come! What if we could imagine these changes as embracing both challenges and opportunities together? What would that look like? In answering that question we need to ask:
Does it matter?
How crucial is it that our expectations or desires be met? Does it really matter? It may. It may not. At no time in our lives are we able to do everything we want in the way we imagine. Asking: Does it matter? summons the more important question: What does matter? Letting go of the non-essentials can leave us surprised at what’s left. In the end, it really does not matter how fast I run, but it matters I can move; I don’t need to win the argument but I need to be heard; I don’t need the stuff everyone says I need, but I need to know my priorities in life.
Is there another way?
Obstacles, frustrations, and problems require us to look at situations differently- something we would not do if everything went our way. Milton Glaser once noted that success prevents us from experiencing discovery. There may be a better way of accomplishing what matters to us but it is hard to see it unless forced to do so. Asking ourselves if there is another way can include changing the way we look at a situation and seeing the gift that is already there.
Why do this alone?
I don’t want to navigate this stage on my own. Each of us needs an ally; someone who has our back and who can listen without judgment. Sometimes that’s a partner/spouse, a work colleague, or a dear friend. Someone once said: We’re all a work in progress, forever learning life’s lessons. Why not learn those life lessons with someone who matters to us?
Coming to terms with changing expectations requires a mix of pragmatism and imagination. It is territory worth exploring if we are to avoid getting lost in the dark wood. This stage in life invites us to appreciate and love the finely woven tapestry that we are, not yet finished, an ever unfolding richly textured life to be lived. When we re-imagine the place between expectations and reality, we bring our whole selves (flaws, quirks and all) to the moment with a sense of gratitude and optimism for possibilities we experience today and see them in the light of day.
Note: This blog was inspired by conversations with friends and by poet and writer David Whyte, who writes and talks about life transitions and refers to the territory or space between what we want to have happen and what actually happens.