There are so many things I used to put up with when I was younger. I would tolerate situations I hated for the longest time. I don’t think I even recognized when I was miserable—in relationships, at work, whatever. Now, I pay attention to how I’m feeling, how I’m reacting. I respect my own sense of what’s going on. I don’t force myself to take it. If things aren’t right for me, I know it and I get the heck out of the situation. I’m getting better and better at this.
—A man in his fifties.
As a child, I remember how disputes in games on the playground would be resolved with a do-over. There was a certain glee in clearing the slate. The ball would be returned to where it had been, each of us would take up our original positions, and we would get another chance. Ready, set, go. We would put all we had into it.
It’s one thing to move a ball into position for a fresh start, but how do we do this with our own lives? Many of us need a personal crisis to push us out of the numbing rhythm of adapting, compromising, and avoiding. We need some kind of necessity to push us to a place in ourselves where we have never been, to an avenue of self-knowledge we would rather not traverse. The key is to recognize this kind of opportunity when it presents itself and welcome the upheaval that will yield discoveries.
A woman in her early fifties recounted having been thrust into an awareness of herself she had not expected and at first could not encompass:
I had this idea of who I was – nurturing, easy-going, flexible – the opposite of how my own mother had been. I really cherished this image. I considered myself the world’s most supportive mother. In my late forties, I had a quarrel with my oldest daughter that rattled me to the core. She was saying how tired she was of trying to live up to all my expectations. I insisted it wasn’t true, that I wasn’t putting this on her. Then she hit me with a whole list of the ways she knew she fell short in my eyes. I was stunned. Somewhere inside, I saw that there might be some truth to what she was saying, but I wasn’t ready to admit to it.
Her daughter’s lament was a fundamental blow to her view of herself. Her first impulse was to fend it off, to prove to her daughter how wrong she was and show her how her complaint held little merit. The pain was so intense that she was tempted to blurt awful things and withdraw. Instead, she held her tongue and asked for a cooling-off period.
At first, she just waited for her daughter to come to her senses. Then, she gathered that everyone in her family also felt they could never quite measure up. She began considering how she had managed to convey such exacting standards to her children. “For a while, I couldn’t figure it out, how this could have happened. It was outside my awareness, completely against my intention.
Reviewing an array of memories, she saw how her displeasure had unwittingly leaked out – through gestures that communicated disappointment, a tone of voice that expressed irritation, barbs disguised as jests. “It made me cry when I realized that what my daughter had said was true. Then I cried when I saw her finally relaxing in my company, after I eased up. She was able to just be herself.”
This woman also saw how she had oppressed herself with excessively high expectations: “What I had been putting onto my kids was only half of what I had been laying on myself over the years.” She had carried a perpetual sense of not having made enough of herself, somehow not attaining all she had been meant to achieve. With the impact of these realizations, she was able to sit back and give herself credit for her own accomplishments for the first time. “I have the feeling of starting over, of taking things easier. It’s a whole new life for me.”
A loved one’s complaint may bring us to the point where it’s impossible to indulge in yet another delaying tactic. It is exciting to snap out of avoidance. What we are able to grasp at fifty may highlight all we misperceived at twenty or thirty. We may glimpse the possibility that compromises tolerated for too long can be overthrown; dilemmas evaded for decades can be unraveled. The urgency inherent in getting older often produces corrective energy and may give us the boost we need to change course, to grant ourselves a second chance.
Making room for what comes to the surface on such occasions is the stuff of liberation. We may find that facing our flaws, subjecting ourselves to inner scrutiny, is not as frightening as it once seemed. Taking a few faltering steps into the unknown, we can gather up our old hurts and doubts, and dare to confront these uneasy layers of ourselves. Instead of hurting from what we wish we could have done differently, we can go ahead and make amends. We can allow something to happen beyond the safety of what has become tried and true. We may have to summon our cumulative hardiness to venture in, but there are ample rewards when we accept what regret has to teach us.
Ready. Set. Go. It's so good to get another chance.
Adapted from: Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.