Pandemic Chronicles #22: There’s a lot of middle-aged self-reflection going on these days
The pandemic appears to have prompted a lot of self-reflection among middle-aged folks during the past year or so, and the results of these inner dialogues are starting to emerge. More and more we’re hearing about career and job shifts, accelerated retirement timelines, moves to places near and far, changes in personal relationships, new hobbies and avocations, and more active pursuits of “bucket list” plans.
This stuff is popping up in everyday conversations, Facebook postings, and news features about life transitions in the shadow of COVID-19. I don’t know if it’s a temporary blip on the screen or the beginning of some major social ground shifting, but for now the phenomenon is real.
Even in normal times, the years commonly classified as middle aged (45-65 years old) are often accompanied by a growing awareness of one’s mortality. The pandemic has put a sharper spin on that inevitability. Put simply, the combination of living in semi-quarantine mode for the past year while watching this virus claim millions of lives has caused a lot of folks to ask how they want to live their remaining years and with whom they wish to spend them.
Of course, the freedom to make these changes assumes a certain amount of resources. Not everyone is in a position to set their lives in a dramatically more enriching direction. Many will simply be trying to pull their lives together as we hopefully continue to push back on this virus.
But for those fortunate to have some flexibility of choice, there may be changes afoot, perhaps even big ones. Stay tuned to see whether this will become a mega-trend with major generational impacts. It may get very interesting.
Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)
For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing(2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:
- “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”;
- “I wish I didn’t work so hard”;
- “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”;
- “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; and,
- “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.
I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.
Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):
- “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
- “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
- “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
- “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
- “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”
Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.
Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.
Cross-posted with my “Minding the Workplace” professional blog.
How long does it take to make a new friend? (And other thoughts on friendships)
A recent Yes! magazine feature on 2018’s top scientific insights about living a meaningful life reports on a study by researcher Jeffery Hall (U. Kansas) examining the process of building friendships. In terms of sheer interaction time, the study indicates that we make friends much quicker when we’re younger than when we’re older:
This year, University of Kansas researcher Jeffrey A. Hall helped demystify the process of friendship-building in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. It’s the first to explore how many hours it takes for an acquaintance to become a friend.
Hall surveyed 112 college students every three weeks during their first nine weeks at a Midwestern university. He also gave a one-time questionnaire to 355 American adults who had moved to a new city in the past six months. In these surveys, the newcomers picked a friend or two and reported how much time they spent together and how close the friendship became.
With this data, Hall was able to approximate how many hours it took for different levels of friendship to emerge:
- It took students 43 hours and adults 94 hours to turn acquaintances into casual friends.
- Students needed 57 hours to transition from casual friends to friends. Adults needed, on average, 164 hours.
- For students, friends became good or best friends after about 119 hours. Adults needed an added 100 hours to make that happen.
I think I get it
When I briefly moved this blog to the TinyLetter platform in 2017, I wrote about friendships, and I’m going to incorporate some of that commentary here. First off, Dr. Hall’s research study appears to complement a 2012 New York Times piece that I cited, in which author Alex Williams examines the challenges of making friends from age 30 onward:
In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply.
…As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
Of course, as these authors and researchers would no doubt agree, the processes of making and growing friendships are about much more than time and proximity. Shared experiences, values, and personality matches are just as important. Strong connections via the latter can create deep bonds in a relatively short amount of time.
That said, as a baseline matter, the findings that close friendships may be easier to create when we are younger resonates with me. Especially compared to college, law school, and my early years of legal practice as a Legal Aid lawyer, making new, close friendships as I entered into my mid-30s proved to be a challenge. It didn’t help that during that time, I had uprooted myself from New York City (my dearly adopted home of 12 years) to Boston to take a law school teaching job. Now, Boston is a beautiful city with many positive qualities, but in keeping with the town’s long-held reputation for parochialism, the locals weren’t exactly rolling out the Welcome Wagon for newcomers like me. And I just happened to be joining an institution that embodied a lot of that insularity. Those early years in Boston were awfully lonely.
During the past decade or so, however, I have found that making new friends is easier. They live in the Boston area, elsewhere in the U.S., and around the world. It took me until well into my 50s to get to this place. In particular, I have discovered, and in some instances helped to create, multiple communities of good, grounded people — tribes, if you will — that have fostered genuine friendships, while strengthening many friendships of longer vintage. During this time, and fueled by these good people, I have grown as a person.
All the lonely people
It’s worth our time and effort to pay attention to friendships, because we are also in the midst of what many observers and researchers are calling an epidemic of loneliness, especially among those later in life. (Just search “loneliness epidemic” and you’ll see what I mean.) The presence or absence of good friendships in our lives is not the only major factor in determining loneliness, but it’s a big part of the equation.
And if we add to the mix the challenges of forging new friendships as we get older, then the findings about loneliness and aging present yet another dimension: One of the obvious antidotes to loneliness — creating new, genuine friendships — does not come as easily as we age.
So, while it’s hardly a quick fix, we benefit individually and collectively by valuing friendships and the care and feeding of friendships. Individual tastes and preferences may vary, and I’ll toss in the introvert vs. extrovert factor as well when it comes to the role that friendships play in our lives. But suffice it to say that having good friends in our lives is part of living well and healthy.
I won’t claim to be an expert on the making and nurturing of friendships, but I’m pretty confident in offering this cluster of observations, drawing upon what I wrote in 2017:
1. To make and keep a good friend, you have to be a good friend. People may differ on what being a good friend means, but a good friendship goes both ways under any definition.
2. Especially when one friend is in great need, a supreme test of that friendship is how the other responds. A great friendship survives, perhaps even grows out of, this adversity.
3. Older friendships may ripen and mature. Shared memories from back in the day can be great (those old stories are the best, aren’t they?), but those friendships may deepen beyond the snapshots of days gone by — and ideally they will do so.
4. Shared, immersed interests and experiences are a great source of new friendships in adulthood. They can create positive, supportive, and lasting emotional connections.
5. Friendships can come from anywhere, including online interactions. For example, I find that Facebook at middle age has proven to be a source of genuine connections with folks from many different walks of life. Online communications are also a great way of maintaining and growing existing friendships separated by distance.
6. A diversity of friends makes our lives richer. I don’t mean diversity in so-called politically correct terms, but rather friends drawn naturally from different walks of life. For me, shared core values are important, but this still leaves abundant room for differences in lifestyles, ages/generations, political and social beliefs, and overall backgrounds.
7. Family members can become friends, and friends can become extended family members. It’s the quality of the relationship that matters, not necessarily bloodlines.
8. Love in many different manifestations can be a by-product of friendship. This includes familial, romantic, or simply a bond that deepens.
9. Friendships can form out of positive experiences, shared challenges, or adversity. What counts is the character of the relationships.
10. Friendships, like any other relationship, are not necessarily forever. People change, stuff happens. Search “ending a friendship” and you’ll see that a lot of people have thought about this.
11. That said, some friendships are forever. We should treasure them. Getting older is a mixed bag, but one of the best things about it is calling people your lifelong friends and knowing that it’s true.
12. I’m going a tad off-topic here, but a treasured animal can be a friend, too. If you doubt me, then I can refer you to dozens of folks who will attest that their dogs, cats, and other dear critters breathe life into the term “animal companion.”
13. In terms of our closer friendships, it’s mostly about quality, not quantity. If we’re fortunate, that circle can be a source of mutual fellowship and support over the long haul.
14. Shared values can matter to a lot of us in maintaining friendships. I don’t mean that we all need to agree on everything. Rather, I’m referring to core values about life and how we should treat one another.
Year-end thoughts and such
Various friends and family write annual holiday letters, and it’s a neat way to share the year that is about to pass. However, I cannot get my act together even to send out cards, so these meanderings will have to do!
As 2018 comes to an end, it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge the state of public affairs here in the U.S.
I’ve been an amateur student of history and politics for some four decades, and, at times, a political activist. Nothing in my experience or learning approaches the situation we face today. The core fabric of the country is fraying and tearing apart, and it won’t be repaired easily.
The news cycle coming out of the nation’s capital is set to hyper-speed and is shaped by daily tweets and bombasts coming from the White House. Characteristics such as reason, kindness, and understanding are increasingly foreign to the current political culture. It’s all about react, respond, and lash out. It is exhausting and dispiriting simply to be a relative spectator. This is a deeply unsettling time, and it casts a pall over our daily lives.
And what of the year’s end on a personal level? Does hanging a new calendar on the kitchen wall also call for looks back and ahead?
Writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau has used this time to do an annual review. Here’s the lede from his piece about that personal assessment and planning process:
Every year since 2005, I’ve spent the better part of a week in late December planning my life for the next year. Overall, this is probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of working towards multiple goals simultaneously.
The idea is to create a road map for the year ahead—not a rigid daily schedule, but an overall outline of what matters to me and what I hope to achieve in the next year. I complete this process in bits and pieces over several days, partly because of my ADD brain but also because it helps to think about it slowly. Some of you who have the ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time may prefer to do it all at once.
In this essay I’ll take you step-by-step through what I do every December to help plan the next year. . . .
Guillebeau’s annual review process is quite the undertaking, and it’s a bit beyond my inclinations or self-discipline. However, inspired by his example, I will engage in some reflective thinking and planning during the days to come. It may not yield any major revelations or changes, but I’d like to head into 2019 with a good and healthy focus.
Indeed, when I wasn’t distracted by the news, I had the proverbial full plate this year, and I feel like I am sort of dragging myself to the end of it. I’d like to use some welcomed down time during the coming week to take stock.
Maybe you’d like to do the same. If so, I hope it is time well spent.
Among the reasons why I revived this blog is to take closer and more serious looks at the role of Generation Jones (b. 1954-65) in shaping American society during the years to come. We are now squarely into our 50s and 60s. I think this is prime time to consider what Chris Guillebeau has called our “legacy work,” i.e., the lasting, signature contributions that we make to the world.
Of course, a lot of folks have already done some wonderful legacy work, even if they haven’t labeled it as such. It may have been a meaningful career accomplishment. Perhaps it was being a parent or caregiver. Maybe it was a form of community service or a creative endeavor shared with the world.
In any event, I’d like to think that many of us who have entered life’s second half still have plenty of gas in the tank to do remarkable things that contribute to our communities and make a positive difference in the lives of others. We can do so with the benefits of hindsight, experience, and wisdom.
It’s something to ponder as we approach the New Year.
On bucket lists, f***it lists, and the happily mundane
The title of the 2007 movie “The Bucket List” introduced a new phrase into our popular culture, referring to the making of wish lists, written down or simply in our heads, of must-do trips and activities before we die (hence, kick the bucket). The film itself starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two older men with dire medical diagnoses who decide to leave their hospital beds for a whirlwind road trip around the world.
Especially among folks of a certain age (umm, 40s and older), “bucket list” creeps fairly often into conversations about making the most of our respective futures. It’s also an easy peasy invitation to daydreaming big.
But hold on a minute, maybe there’s more to a good life than checking off items on a bucket list! How about the benefits of offloading certain burdens and of pursuing everyday pleasures?
While some are making their bucket lists, others are working on their “f***it” lists, made up of those life matters worthy of jettisoning. As Huffington Post blogger Kathy Gottberg suggests, “we should be both willing and able to let go of anything that drags us down and holds us back from living a happy and content life.”
Furthermore, by choice or circumstance, most of us aren’t in a position to tackle a bucket list that includes a private jet at our beck and call. Not to worry, reports New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber, citing research indicating that simple, pleasurable everyday experiences — “like a day in the library” — can bring us happiness comparable to taking that big trip.
I think I get it. While I have neither a bucket list nor a f***it list, I understand that adding items to the latter can be incredibly freeing. Some of life’s B.S. just isn’t worth carrying around! Also, while I still enjoy visits to cool places, I’m quite happy with stretches that don’t involve long plane flights and that allow time for leisure reading or some quality binge viewing.
In other words, thank goodness there are good ways to pursue happiness besides vagabonding around the world in a Lear jet. Besides, the jet lag would be horrific.
Thinking young and thinking old: The best of both worlds
So here’s the question for the day: In looking for books that help us to play the game of life, should we seek insights that encourage us to be young and adventurous or old and wise? Our popular culture worships youth, but there’s much to be said for maturity, too.
How about seeking out both perspectives?!
On that note, here are two books that might be interesting back-to-back reads: Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) and Charles D. Hayes’s The Rapture of Maturity (2004). They were written with different generational audiences in mind, the former pitched at younger folks, the latter aimed at older folks.
From Hayes’s Autodidactic.com website, here’s a description of The Rapture of Maturity:
The Rapture of Maturity affirms the joys of discovery and insight that accompany thoughtful reflection on our years of lived experience and a pursuit of deeper understanding. It encourages the kind of thinking that can transform human relations on a global scale.
Rapture is the reward of living authentically and acting deliberately to leave the world a better place than we found it. For those who seek such a goal, this book is indispensable.
And here’s an online description of Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity:
If you’ve ever thought, “There must be more to life than this,” The Art of Non-Conformity is for you.
Based on Chris Guillebeau’s popular online manifesto “A Brief Guide to World Domination,” The Art of Non-Conformity defies common assumptions about life and work while arming you with the tools to live differently. You’ll discover how to live on your own terms by exploring creative self-employment, radical goal-setting, contrarian travel, and embracing life as a constant adventure.
Publisher’s Weekly aptly noted that “although directed at readers of all ages, [Guillebeau’s] message is likely to appeal most to those without dependents.” So consider the interesting twist: A book that understandably may be discounted as unrealistic by parents raising kids may suddenly be more relevant to them once they become empty nesters.
And for those who are younger, what better way to get a head start on what’s important in life than to read about lessons learned by Charles Hayes, an insightful, thoughtful, largely self-taught philosopher and writer of more senior vintage?
Each book is full of inspiration, sound advice, and thought provoking observations. Here are parts from each that stand out for me:
In a chapter titled “Graduate School vs. the Blogosphere,” The Art of Non-Conformity explores the question of grad school vs. independent learning. Guillebeau shares his own graduate school experience (a master’s degree program in international affairs) and compares its time, cost, and activities to the benefits of pursuing a largely self-defined course of independent study.
He includes a suggested outline for a “One Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience,” basically a low-cost, do-it-yourself program of reading, multi-media learning, travel, and online publishing. For lifelong learning junkies, this is catnip and gets the wheels turning. It’s a wonderful reminder of how much good stuff is out there for independent learners.
For me, the most memorable passage of The Rapture of Maturity is a story of regret that Hayes shares from his younger days when he lived for a short time in a boarding house:
In the room next to mine was an old man in his eighties who often asked me to have dinner with him. Most of the time I was in too much of a hurry and declined. When I did accept his invitation, I ate quickly and never stayed very long. The recurring memory I have today sees through that old man’s screen door to the table always set with an extra plate in case he might have company for dinner. Today I understand that he was lonely. Back then I didn’t have the time or the patience to notice.
Hayes goes on to explore the role of regret in helping us to shape better lives. “Reflecting on this kind of unfinished business,” he writes, “prepares us for similar decisions in the future.”
Freedom and responsibility
For me, at least, the broader takeaways from these books, considered together, is that life is a balance of freedom and responsibility. It’s about the freedom to do things and make decisions about one’s life, along with a self-defined responsibility to live in a meaningful, authentic, and difference-making way.
Within those very broad parameters, there may be plenty of room to navigate between family, friends, work, faith and spirituality, and various activities.
Not everyone has these choices. Life’s opportunities are not equally distributed, and for some they may be very constricted. But for those who are blessed with, at the very least, some capacity to create these options, these two books may be valuable.
If you’ve got some time to kill…
As some of you know, I’ve been writing a professional blog, Minding the Workplace, for over six years. A lot of the material is heavier stuff, looking at employee relations, workplace bullying, employment law, psychological health at work, and so on. But on occasion I’ve written pieces with a lighter touch that may be of interest to readers here. I thought I’d dig into the archives of that blog and share a few of them:
Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments? (2014) — “So, in the absence of these colleges for 40-year-olds (and beyond), how can we think and reflect upon our lives to date, our lives right now, and our lives to come? For those who, like me, sometimes turn to good books for guidance, let me introduce a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater.”
What now, not what if (2013) — “Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them….That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy.”
The perils and pleasures of nostalgia, even about work?! (2013) — I get especially nostalgic about two work experiences. The first was my initial year as a Legal Aid lawyer in Manhattan, following my graduation from NYU’s law school….My second nostalgic focus: Returning to NYU after six years of legal practice as an instructor in its innovative first-year Lawyering Program….Both clusters of memories, however, gloss over the fact that I was years away from discovering my true passions as a teacher, scholar, and advocate. I was clueless about a lot of things, and not exactly on the leading edge of emotional maturity.”
August 1982: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (2012) — “This month, I find myself particularly nostalgic over events of 30 years ago, when I moved from Hammond, Indiana to New York City to begin law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village. This was a pretty big deal for me. Although I had benefited greatly from a semester abroad in England during college at Valparaiso University, I was far from worldly and had never been to New York City before applying to NYU….Within a few days of my arrival, I would start classes in Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building, on the southwest corner of Washington Square….”
Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts (2012); Collegiate reflections: Working on the campus newspaper (2012) — “With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience….”
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide toward good transitions (2012) — As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition….If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.
Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.”
Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010) — “Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity. Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this. Hilda Demuth-Lutze is a friend from college days at Valparaiso University (Indiana) who is the author of historical novels for young adults. Mark Mybeck is a friend going back to grade school in Hammond, Indiana, whose band, Nomad Planets, is creating a niche for itself in the Greater Chicagoland indie rock scene.”
Pursuing your passion (realism edition)
The title of Marsha Sinetar’s Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow (1989) is perhaps the world’s easiest eight-word commencement speech, and it has been repeated, mantra-like, in countless pep talks and career counseling sessions. At least before the Great Recession hit, the book was extraordinarily popular in college career services offices, especially for liberal arts majors.
In fact, it’s a pretty good read and worth a look for anyone in a career/life shifting or changing mode. However, the message conveyed by the title may sound downright starry-eyed and naive to those juggling rent payments or a mortgage, kids, car payments, a grocery bill, and the rest…maybe to the point where you’re saying to yourself, oh c’mon, what a load of fertilizer.
And yet, we go around only once in this lifetime, and it strikes me as being a terrible shame for folks to give up on what activities engage and excite them. So here’s what I call the Realism Edition of Pursuing Your Passion:
First, it may be possible for you to turn your passion into a job. Is there a demand for what you like to do? Are your talents sufficient to satisfy that demand? Will the income pay the bills? It could take you a while to answer these questions, but if the answers lean toward yes, then maybe you can make a go of it.
Second, even if the prospects of turning your passion into a full-time job are limited or doubtful at this juncture, can you start by doing it as a side gig or perhaps as an avocation? You’ll be able to derive enjoyment from the activity, maybe earn some income from it (or at least cover expenses), and plant possible seeds for turning this into your next career.
Third, if your passion doesn’t necessarily translate into income, can you pursue it as a hobby? With the busy demands of everyday life, we’ve lost sight of hobbies as a meaningful, important activity. Maybe it’s not in the stars, at least for now, for you to be a pro basketball player, famous clothes designer, or featured nightclub singer. But how about joining a hoops league at the Y, setting up a knitting space in a spare corner, or participating in a local singing group?
In some cases, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow may be more dreamy invocation than hard reality. But even if your passion isn’t meant to be your main income source, there should be a way to bring the core joys of that activity into your life. There are no guarantees, of course, but wouldn’t it be a shame not even to try?