Action, Not Reaction, Is the Secret
by Douglas LaBier
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Washington Post, July 12, 1993
One afternoon a couple of years ago I was struggling with a writing project but making no headway. I decided I needed a few minutes diversion, and began flipping through the TV channels. I came upon the “Mr. Rogers” show. It had been a favorite of my youngest child, Peter, and I easily recalled him watching it with intense concentration during his early years.
Suddenly I felt a wave of sadness. A special time of life had ended, permanently and forever. He was then in his late childhood, and I realized that I would never again see him – or any of my children – at that earlier stage of life.
With foolish anger I wished that the past could somehow be preserved forever. I could not see another – positive – side of this “loss.” Had I been open to it, I would have recognized one of the new powers we can use at midlife to deepen our life purpose, relationships, and our self-direction.
That is, the loss also contained a new challenge: to create new pleasures in relating to my son as a growing young man. I could not see this other side because I was unable to accept the loss of his childhood and simultaneously affirm a different form of relationship with him as he matured, one which would enable both of us to grow.
Such a perspective would embrace a duality, a paradox like that represented by the character in the Chinese language for “crisis,” which is the same character for “opportunity.”
The hidden powers of midlife lie in the capacity we accrue by then to shift perspective and take new action. For example, to awaken to what is opened up by loss or change, discover how our ways of dealing with our life situation produce feelings of being “frozen,” and apply our awareness to new action that reclaims ownership of our lives.
These are the voluntary changes of midlife. Events we initiate with conscious intent. And they are crucial to men and women of the new midlife generation. Many of them feel that they are not really living their own lives; that they have become “derailed” from the path they once envisioned. Some end up concluding, like Tom, at 38, that entering his midlife began the “long slide home.”
Many stories have appeared in the press lately about the new midlife generation’s search for a renewed vitality, for greater purpose and meaning, as Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke about in a widely-publicized recent speech. Opposing it is the belief that midlife is a dead-end.
What can help break through this impasse is seeing the difference between the voluntary events of midlife that we can set in motion and which expand our lives, and the involuntary events which we mistakenly think are the real subject matter of midlife.
We learn in our culture that effective dealing with involuntary events is the real challenge of midlife. These include children leaving home, career plateaus or downturns, the aging of our bodies, unexpected illness or death. Such events occur, but our exclusive focus on them blinds us to seeing that we can initiate action which frees us from feeling stuck and transforms our lives.
Voluntary events include shifting our life purpose and practicing values we believe in. Or committing our energies to goals that are our own, knowing they may go against the grain of what is conventional or popular. In short, it means “walking the talk.”
We cannot do this without uncertainty, fear, and risking the loss of what we now “have.” But voluntary change actually makes us stronger and creates greater self-definition, because it puts us into a proactive mode. This contrasts with the reactive posture we are in when dealing with involuntary change.
Even when we do recognize that voluntary events are the key to midlife renewal, we often don’t know which support new growth and which are impulsive actions. We don’t learn this growing up in our culture. Consequently, many of us feel mystified or envious when we see some people shift their values or behavior.
For example, Roger, a corporate executive, decided to commit time each week to helping handicapped people learn skills relevant to work and to increasing their self-sufficiency. He said that he had always found such people unpleasant and a little disgusting to be around.
So why did he bother? Precisely for that reason. He decided to put himself in the very situation where he would have to deal with his lack of compassion rather than rationalize or dismiss his attitudes. By doing this, he discovered new capacities for human connection which had remained dormant most of his life.
Similarly, Joan volunteered for a new project at work in which she knew she lacked the necessary skills and competency. She was frightened, and concerned about the sacrifice of time she would have to make, given an uncertain payoff. Yet, she decided to strengthen herself in these new areas, which would be a new challenge. This didn’t dissolve her fears, but she became clear about what was important to her at this point, and why she wanted to go forward.
Neither Roger nor Joan are exceptional people. But they discovered on their own that new perspectives and action can turn midlife into a period of excitement and heightened purpose.
We undertake voluntary change by putting ourselves in a new situations or environments that call forth new responses, new capacities, and new strengths. Of course, this feels threatening and disruptive, as Roger and Joan would readily acknowledge. But as the novelist Graham Greene wrote, “One small act of daring can change one’s whole conception of what is possible.”
We can also make voluntary changes that are more life-encompassing, such as changing careers, changing our work-life balance, or leaving a relationship that has become deadened or destructive. These changes grow out of confronting such questions as, “What am I doing with my life?” and “Who am I doing it with?” Through asking ourselves questions like these we examine what we are really living for, as reflected in our concrete, daily lives, rather than in our idealized self-images.
The voluntary changes of midlife are shifts in the practice of our lives – the totality of how we live each day, through our relations, the values that guide us, and the decisions we make. Voluntary changes that support greater health, vitality, and self-direction involve our total way of being. We can’t try to shift direction in one area of life without it affecting other areas, as well.
What makes it so hard to tap into the hidden power of voluntary change at midlife?
A major reason is the pathological fixation in our culture on equating change with loss – and therefore experiencing it as painful and bad. Most of us can recall something that we wanted to “possess” forever – a special moment, a period in a relationship, a particular experience. But of course, such moments slipped away like water through our fingers, because they are part of a seamless process of constant change.
Fixating on loss is a perspective. Like all perspectives, it generates an emotional state, and defines what actions we think are possible. For example, it leads to clinging to what is gone, and makes nostalgic retreat and fantasy beckon us. And nostalgia is neither healthy nor useful. Ultimately, it is not even fun. Moreover, when we only look back we easily forget the larger context of the loss, which may not have been all that positive to begin with.
Even worse, over time nostalgia creates feelings of victimization and denial. These turn us away from life-affirming action which is necessary to expand our lives during midlife. If we recognize that loss always contains the kernel for new, life-affirming experiences, and combine that awareness with new action, we neither deny that loss has occurred nor have as much fear about the consequences.
Another reason why voluntary change is hard is because it requires embracing our fear of the unknown, of letting go of the familiar. This is what courage really is – action in the face of fear. We can embrace and accept our fears, and at the same time, act. Too often, we think that we must subdue our fears first, in order to take new action. This creates paralysis, and ultimately, feeling like a victim of circumstance.
Linda discovered that she could stand her ground in a decision-making meeting at work and, at the same time, acknowledge to herself that she feared looking like a fool. She found that her fear could co-exist with her action; that the former did not have to paralyze the latter.
Within all of us is a powerful desire to stay just as we are, even when we are suffering. We may feel safer masking the inner despair that many of us feel about, for example, living a life that is not our own, a life that feels derailed, or – even worse – like it hasn’t ever begun. As one midlife person told me after learning he had a serious illness, “I don’t mind dying because I’ve never really lived.”
People who initiate voluntary change know that it always involves fear. But we have some allies to help us. Ironically, they are the failures and downturns that most of us have had by midlife. With a different perspective, these experiences can strengthen our courage to take new actions, because we have learned what works, what doesn’t, and why. Healthy people think of “failures” as ineffective solutions to problems. They don’t identify with the failure as much as others who become defeated by them, and therefore they feel much less inhibited about taking new actions, new risks.
Also, by midlife most of us have accumulated enough perspective to see through the banal and shallow values which dominate so much of our culture. Because we are far along to see the end of the road, we can combine perspectives like these to cultivate new determination, vision, and sense of urgency. We are better positioned to know what we want to go after and what to pass by. This is the basis of becoming the “author” or our life story, rather than feeling like we are a character in a novel written by someone else.
Of course, an essential ingredient in undertaking voluntary change is confronting and rectifying whatever distortions remain in our lives from childhood. This is where psychotherapy can be helpful or even crucial when the damage has been significant.
For the majority of people who are relatively well-adapted, distortions from family life and socialization into our gender roles are the major barriers to voluntary change at midlife. For example, Larry discovered that he chronically entered relationships in which he played out a role of appeasement, which mirrored his mother’s role in his family.
Generally, men’s “normal” gender socialization makes them frightened about feeling vulnerable or being emotionally connected. Women feel diminished self-esteem when their emotional reality is questioned or when disconnection occurs in a relationship.
Other examples of “normal” distortion occur in careers, in which we learn to cling too much to position and recognition as the measure of our self-worth and life purpose. When those measures decline, so do our feelings about ourselves.
In relationships, an example for men is learning to relate to women as objects to possess, as non-equals, which causes both to suffer. For women, it is learning to define self-worth primarily in terms of recognition by a man. The result is that most of us become deformed versions of human beings by the time we arrive at our middle years.
When dealing with distortions – whether from our personal past or from the cultural values we have absorbed – we easily forget that change can only occur in our present conduct, within the present moment. This is where we live. The writer Peter Matthiessen has described our tendency to ignore this, and let our lives “unravel in regrets of the past, and fantasies about the future.” The voluntary changes that enable us to reclaim our lives at midlife must occur right here, in the context of daily life.
The author Henry Miller once wrote, “There are two paths to take in life: one backward, toward comfort and the security of death, the other forward…to nowhere!” This is the kind of spirit – of realism, courage, and sense of humor – found in men and women who become more alive at midlife. It is the mature blend of perspective, sense of urgency, and new practices that makes midlife a time of new growth, a time when we can initiate changes which are simultaneously realistic and liberating.
SIDEBAR: The Building Blocks of Self
Abandoning our conventional view of the self can aid shifting our perspective and expanding our lives during midlife. Our traditional view of the self is that it is a fixed entity which we must keep strong and well-protected. We accept the importance of increasing and maintaining our “self-esteem.” I believe this view of the self has outlived its usefulness and should be discarded.
More helpful to reclaiming our lives at midlife is the perspective that the self is just a convenient fiction. It only exists within the context of a relationship. It describes a shifting configuration of our resources, capacities, and character orientations which can take different form in different kinds of relationships. For example, most of us know that the “self” we experience relating to a loved one is different from that when relating to a telephone solicitor or to a business client. We all have had the experience of discovering that certain people seem to “draw out” a side of ourselves, or a different self altogether, that others do not.
The reason we think of our self as fixed is because most of us keep our entire life context, including our relationships, relatively fixed and unchanged. What can help us see the possibility of change more clearly is thinking of the self more like the children’s toy, lego blocks. The parts can be snapped together to construct a building, a car, a person. They retain that form, that “self,” as long as the parts remain together in that form. But they can be taken apart and reconfigured into different forms.
Similarly, our own elements can be reconfigured and shifted into different forms for different purposes or goals, or because we want to cultivate new capacities, new qualities within ourselves that have been dormant. We are not frozen into one form forever. That is a choice.