Your Life - Slip-Sliding Away?
I was talking to coach Bradley Foster last Thursday before and
during my weekly internet radio program, and one of the issues that I
brought up with him concerned my quandary regarding what to do about
men approaching or in midlife who more or less pride themselves on the
depth of their denial. The symptoms of this denial are two-pronged: on
the one hand, it's the feeling that I can take care of myself and I
don't need anybody else's help doing it; and, on the other hand, it's
the attitude that the difficulties and obstacles I'm facing are
somebody (or something) else's fault. Hiding behind this two-edged
sword of denial (being unable to admit that I'm in trouble and that I'm
the only one that can fix the situation) pretty much guarantees that a
guy's midlife transition will become a crisis. Midlife crisis lies
between the Scylla of inaction and the Charybdis of focusing your
energies in the wrong direction. Bradley's response to my question was
brilliant: focus on those guys who know they're in trouble and who want
to do something about it.
There's a deadly little secret that
traps way too many well-intentioned men (and women) as adulthood
progresses. People forget that they don't know what they don't know.
That's what so fascinates me about culture: it's imperceptible to each
of us, except when we see it in someone else. That's why sociologist
Geert Hofstede calls culture the 'software of the mind': it's embedded
in each of our mental 'operating systems' and determines how the data
of our perception gets analyzed as we perceive it. It forms the meaning
that we give to everything that we 'understand' and that we think
exists 'out there'. Take, for example, a three-legged piece of
furniture about two feet high. What is it? Depending on how we perceive
it, we can just as easily take it for a table as for a stool. It all
depends. It so affected Hofstede that he wrote a book about the four
scales that can measure cultural attitudes only to realize years later
that there was a fifth scale experienced primarily by Asian peoples — a
scale of perceptual experience that, as a Westerner, he could not
What is it that we (you and I) don't know that we're not aware of? It seems so obvious to state that we can't see our own blind spots. Our scotomas are so much a part of the world as we know it that recognizing them on our own proves to be an impossible task. We can only see the blemishes on our faces when we look in the mirror; we can only see the blemishes on our souls when we allow others to see them. In addition, every culture endows its society with its own peculiar patterns of scotoma. The more culturally isolated we allow ourselves to remain, the more 'normal' our blind spots may seem, and the more bizarre other cultures (with their different scotomas) will appear. In fact, 'uncertainty avoidance' (the willingness to tolerate differences of opinion) is one of Hofstede's five cultural scales. The more culturally blind we are, the more culturally blind we may be destined to become.
So, what does this have to do with midlife? Just everything! The essence of the midlife transition comes down to the capacity a man or woman has to reinterpret and reform his or her worldview (including his or her place within it). You know when you're in the transition, not by how young or old you are, but by whether or not the life that you're living right now is making any sense to you. The key question, as Dr. Phil so often asks is,"How's that working out for you?" If you have the basic humility to answer that question honestly, and the answer is a negative one, you're on your way to making some good progress in leaving the dysfunctional assumptions of adulthood behind and beginning the shift in to maturity.
Make no mistake about it: blasting through the walls of denial, accepting and admitting that there's a problem is no small accomplishment. Some people sit in the prison of denial until their world crumbles around them into virtual dust, all the while proclaiming to the world very loudly (often in a vain attempt to convince themselves) that there's nothing wrong; that everything's 'fine'. You don't have to let this happen to you! If things aren't working out for you — if you're lacking a pervading sense of joy and serenity — you can admit it. You don't have to be perfect; you don't have to deal with it by yourself; you don't have to be some sort of tragic hero.
If you can accept and admit that your life as you're living it isn't making you happy, you can change it. You have many more choices than you may right now imagine. Yet, the choices that you make are critical to how well you'll be able to manage your midlife transition, and these choices all depend on your attitude. Many people delude themselves into thinking that they have the power to change people, places, and things. Don't be like them. Look at Covey's 'circle of influence' vs. the 'circle of concern'. Your circle of concern is very broad and encompasses everyone and everything that you care about. Your circle of influence consists of everyone and everything in your life that you can effectively manage, and it's very small indeed. In fact it encompasses only one person: you. You can't change other people. You can't 'make' them do what you want them to do. You can't effectively change organizations or systems, either. They'll resist you at every turn, no matter how much 'power' you think you have over them.
There's a Latin phrase that you can use as your mantra in the midlife transition: mutatis mutandis ('change what needs to be changed'). And what needs to be changed is you. Don't be concerned about what other people think or do. It really is all about you! Change has nothing to do with replacing the external trappings of your life: that's not the problem. You'll quickly find that the situation you created has become the situation you left. Why? Because the common denominator in each of these equations is you. Change yourself, and everything in your life will change. It seems so simple, but so few people are willing or able to actually do it. You have the choice; you have the chance. It's your life; you can make of it what you want. The only caveat I offer you is this: don't try to do it alone. Those two demons of the midlife crisis — denial and blame — are so powerful that only a community can overcome them. Stop letting your life slip-slide away by doing nothing. Choose an effective fellowship of support, tell them (and yourself) the honest truth, and start making changes. You'll be astounded at what the results will be.