As a younger man, I didn’t really know the difference between being fearless and being reckless. Just about everything seemed like a good idea, provided you could muster up the guts to do it. In a way, that was a blessing – it provided a sort of ignorant freedom to do whatever struck me as interesting or fun. I think, as a general rule, that’s true of a lot of people. Youth and audacity seem to go hand in hand. And then, to varying degrees, we all grow up. Life takes on a more defined shape and gravity. We come to know that not only is the line between bold and foolish thin and poorly drawn, but that we’ve straddled it our entire young lives.
And because we’ve spent so much time building a certain kind of life, it starts to feel unwise to stand so near this line. We accumulate stuff and the stuff goes from feeling like a shiny extravagance to feeling like a life necessity. The more we think about what we have, the more we think about what we have to lose. It doesn’t happen all at once, of course. It’s a slow burn. Over time, we retreat. We over correct. We shake our heads at our incredible good fortune that we got away with all that tomfoolery for so long. Then day by day, year by year, we move a little further away from the murky border until bold and fearless are somewhere off in the far distance.
And – if you’re like me – maybe you wake up one day, half way through your life, and think, “Whoa, how the hell did I get all the way over here? ”
So, yeah, I’m having something of a midlife crisis. It starts with this thought: I’m going to die one day. (yes, it’s a pretty unoriginal thought) I don’t think about this fact a lot but I do think about it considerably more now than I did a decade ago. Best case scenario, the show is at least half over and there are more days behind than ahead. Worst case scenario, I throw a clot before I even finish this piece and leave you all wondering what final wisdom I was about to deliver. At this point, it’s a crap shoot (but keep your expectations low on the whole ‘final wisdom’ thing).
Reflection, of course, is a double edged sword. It’s enormously healthy (when you sit and consider your life path and goals) and incredibly self-indulgent (when you inflict these revelations on others). I’m about to inflict a few of mine on you so, seriously, no offense if you stop reading now.
On the upside, my midlife crisis hasn’t manifested as an obsession with fast cars and 20-something women (though both have their merits). Instead, it’s revealed itself as a slow, nagging case of doubt. Doubt about work, doubt about my world view, and especially doubt about whether I am living a life that – when considered one final time on my death bed — I will think, “Yeah, I did that shit right.”
By any measure, I’m insanely lucky. I’ve traveled and lived abroad. I enjoy my work, have good friends, and a wonderful wife with whom I am hard at work raising two great kids. If I look at it all just right, I’m pretty much able to convince myself that I am living outside the rat race or, at least, living on the fringe of the everyday grind. But then there are days that I catch a glimpse of the great-indifferent machine of daily life and I realize that I am really just a talkative, amiable, well-coifed part of it.
And it’s not really this light bulb moment that’s disconcerting. It’s the split second after that I find troubling. The moments when I know a thing to be true and I have to decide what that means for me and my life. Because there’s something about having a meaningful realization, and then ignoring it, that invariably leads to regret.
There is a scene in the final season of The Sopranos where Carmela goes to see a shrink. She’s thinking about leaving her mob boss husband, Tony, but is crushed into inaction by guilt and fear. Carmela dances around the realities of her life, talking about how to set limits and work on her marriage. Her shrink is having none of it. He looks her in the eye and tells her that her husband is a brutal killer and that her only legitimate option is to pack the kids into the car that very night and leave for good. As it becomes clear that this path is one Carmela will never take, the shrink tells her, “One thing you can never say, you haven’t been told.”
I remember that small, quiet scene really landing with me. Once you know something, acting or not acting on it defines you. Carmela can pack the kids up and run or she can go home and make dinner. Either way, she is responsible for who she becomes – single mom in hiding or silent accomplice.
Each little realization about how I live my life – about what I am willing and not willing to regret – calls this scene to mind. Because, if I’m honest with myself, having these little visions of my life is the same as ‘being told’. I know better than to go through the motions and punch the clock.. And I suspect that most of us have, at some point, had the feeling that we’ve bought into a system we don’t really believe in. We earn and spend, accumulate and purge. Wash, rinse, repeat. Maybe sometimes we realize that we’re drowning in the excess of our own lives, so we make a little effort – donating money we don’t really need or clothing we don’t want. And then dash back into the fray. Because the cable bill. Because more. Because there’s something comfortable and mesmerizing about the routine.
I’m as guilty as anyone. As I slop these overwrought epiphanies on the page, I am constantly glancing at my phone and tabbing over to Facebook. Because even when I’m trying to articulate something elusive and thoughtful, a substantial part of me remains addicted to the trivial. Part of me knows I’m on to something important, but most of me has no idea what to do with it – how to make it part of my life without unraveling and reimagining life completely.
So, instead of acting on it, I write about it. This whole monologue is a reminder that it’s far easier to wax philosophical about these ideas than it is to actually do something. I’m hoping that by writing this all down and putting it on public display, I will be able to hold myself at least slightly more accountable. Perhaps this diatribe can, in a small way, serve as a map that will help me find my way back toward fearlessness. And maybe inspire someone out there to do the same.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to post this on Facebook.