I’ve written about the longing to belong previously. The desire to feel firmly anchored in family and community is an ache I’ve felt most of my life. Though I’ve belonged a few precious times in my life and I know what it feels like, I know more about what it doesn’t feel like.
Mangis suggests being an outsider is powerful because being an insider is so much work. We trim and prune and espalier ourselves to stay safe in our feeling of belonging. Humans are social animals. We’re neurobiologically wired to fear being outcast and alone.
Childhood is about learning roles, rules, familial and cultural norms, and, for most of us, under which specific conditions we can be loved and accepted and achieve belonging. Unconditional love is not our best thing.
By the time we’re young adults, we know what’s expected of us if we want to belong. The parts of us that don’t fit in are amputated or hidden, and we often live a double life, one secret and one playing to our audience, or we make ourselves into masks and shells, acceptable to our peers, families, and communities, but lacking authenticity or vitality.
What we really want is for our real selves to belong, our honest, authentic selves, but few of us are lucky enough to find that easily, and the fear of being alone is huge.
We have a tendency to think of maturity as taking place in the first 20 years of life. By then we’re in our adult bodies and generally able to function on our own. We define ourselves as grownups, adults. We take on responsibilities, pursue education and interests, figure out the economics of independence. Some people form partner bonds and raise children. We’re busy in the world and much of that busyness has to do with belonging, taking care of social obligations, participating in production and consumption, and bumping up against limitations, rules, and taboos. We use our manners, follow traffic rules (sometimes), stand in lines, allow ourselves to be directed by signs, and generally follow the same standards of civility we learned in school.
We also subscribe to ideologies and resist change in the form of new information or critical thinking. We can’t endanger our places of belonging. Our identity depends on them.
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
In exchange, we are paid for our work, have friends, family, and community, wear our labels comfortably, and stay safe in the middle of the herd.
Then suddenly we’re old, negligible, invisible, and burdensome.
Then we die.
But what if the first 20 years are just the beginning? What if, as Mangis suggests, we embark on a new level of maturity in late middle age? What if that level requires we outgrow the need to belong and leave the longing for it behind?
I know from my study of power dynamics fear-driven choices indicate power loss. The fear of being outcast and alone is terrible, and so is the fact of it.
However, it is survivable, and it’s also a much, much easier way to live. The degree to which we’ve spent our first 50 years or so living underground or in the shadows is the degree to which our lives simplify if we decide belonging isn’t so important after all.
Suddenly, we can be as big, as expansive, as individual, as happy, as creative, as expressive, and as strong as we choose. We’ve spent 50 years learning about ourselves and the world. We’re no longer overwhelmed with the physiological needs of reproduction. If we give up our fears and struggles around belonging, what could we do with that energy? Belonging is expensive, and so is longing.
Perhaps mid-life crises are really just another growth spurt, a milestone to be celebrated and welcomed.
Instead of framing these years as the beginning of the end, perhaps we could look at them as the beginning of our most authentic years, the years in which we’re less concerned about how acceptable others find us, stop apologizing for who we are, and focus on reclaiming ourselves and belonging in our own skins.
At the end of the day, we belong only to ourselves. We’re not required to give up our power for transformation in order to belong to anyone else.
All we have to do is let go of our longing for belonging.
A frequent conversation among my coworkers at our rehab pool facility, as well as our mostly middle-aged and older patrons and patients, has to do with the unexpected places life takes us. How did we get here from there?
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
For some this is a bittersweet question, for others an amusing one, and for others a bewildered or even despairing one. Whatever our current reality is, none of us could have foreseen or imagined it when we were young adults.
We can all talk about dreams we’ve had, intentions, hopes, and choices we’ve made in pursuit of the life we imagined we wanted, but life itself is always a wild card. It picks us up by the scruff of our neck, sweeps us away, and casts us onto strange shores.
As I age and practice minimalism, I realize keeping my dreams flexible has never been more important. My dreams, along with everything else, change. What I longed for as a young woman is not what I want now. What I needed in midlife is not what I want as I approach my 60s. Some things I’ve thought of as merely desirable are now essential, and other things I thought I needed no longer seem important.
In some ways I like dancing with change, my own as well as external circumstances. It feels dynamic and healthy. Resilience and adaptation are strong life skills.
In other ways it’s hard, the way my needs and I change. Often, I feel my own natural change and growth are hurtful to others. I try to hold them back. I try to stop myself, make myself quiet and small so no one will be upset, including me!
In the end, though, there’s something in me that’s wild, and sure, and deeply rooted in the rightness of change. It can’t be silenced or stifled, and there’s no peace for me until I begin living true to myself once again, no matter the cost.
The costs are very high. The personal costs of living authentically have been catastrophic for me. Sometimes I feel I’ve paid with everything I ever valued.
And yet the power of living authentically, the peace of it, the satisfaction of shaping a life that really works and makes me happy … How much is too much to sacrifice for that?
For a long time, I’ve thought about balance. Financial balance. Work-life balance, which is a term so nonspecific as to be useless. Balancing time. Balancing socialization and solitude. Balancing sitting and writing with physical activity. The complex balance of give and take in relationships. Balancing needs and power.
Minimalism is about balance. Achieving a simple life demands balance, something hard to find in an overcrowded life. Practicing simplicity and working toward balance take mindfulness, which is a difficult skill to hone in our loud, distracting, manipulative and addictive consumer culture. There’s a lot of social pressure to want more and bigger, to hang on tightly to our things.
But I want less. I want less stuff, less expense, less noise (visual and otherwise), less maintenance, less complication. I want less because I want more. I want more peace, more beauty, more sustainability, more time for loved ones and the activities that are most important to me. Gardening. Animals. Walking. Writing. Playing. Spiritual practice.
I don’t want more than I need. I don’t need more than I can use, enjoy, take care of, or pay for.
I do want to accommodate change, my own, and changing circumstances around me. The simpler and easier my life is, the more space I have to welcome my own aging and wherever my life journey takes me next. I don’t make myself crazy trying to anticipate all the future possibilities, but I want to know I can live well with the resource I have and build reserves for whatever the future brings.
Ironically, it often takes resource to go from more to less. Financial resource. Time and energy resource. It takes sacrifice, in the sense of being willing to give up things valued for the sake of things even more valuable and worthy. In its own way, moving in the direction of living simply is as much work and emotional cost as the endless treadmill of more. It does have an end point, though, whereas more is never satisfied.
Last week I read a post from Joel Tefft titled ‘Abandon, Embrace‘. He suggests daily journaling (which I also highly recommend) using the writing prompts: Today I abandon ___ and today I embrace ___. This is balance in action. What is not helping? What is most important? Abandon something in order to make space for something better.
Deciding what kind of a life we want to live and working to create it is a difficult process of choice. It’s difficult because it can be so hard to tell the truth about our needs and feelings. Sometimes we have to give up on cherished dreams and hopes, come to terms with our current limitations. Our choices can affect others in hurtful ways. Sacrifice is not easy. Managing our feelings is not easy.
Choosing, as I’ve said before, involves consequences we can’t always control.
But to make choices, especially difficult ones, is to be standing in our power, as is creating an authentic life that allows us to grow deep roots and be the best and happiest we can be, for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world.
Seligman suggests that enduring or baseline happiness (as opposed to momentary) has much to do with our thoughts and feelings about our past, present, and future. He spends some time going over research about what comes first, our thoughts or feelings, but I won’t go into that here. What I know is that thoughts are not feelings and feelings are not thoughts, and my understanding of the science is that they’re so intimately connected neurologically and chemically we’re not yet sure which comes first or exactly how they influence each other.
As I age, I understand my past better and better. I like to think part of this is my own increasing wisdom and compassion. When we’re young, it’s easy to be judgmental, rigid, and unforgiving. It takes time and experience to gain perspective and accumulate our own history of injustices committed; not-so-great choices; and unthinking, unintended cruelties. If we are aging with grace and learning as we go, we also learn about patterns of behavior in ourselves and others. We figure out it was never all about us and the adults in our childish lives were not gods, but ordinary people.
The past is past, but our memories endure, and we’re all shaped in significant and sometimes painful ways by our childhoods. Some of us live in the past, repeating dysfunctional patterns and unable to move on. We believe our past experience determines our future experience. We know nothing will ever work out for us because we believe it never has. We’re hopelessly cursed, or doomed, or oppressed.
However, research clearly indicates that our past does not determine our future, and Seligman proposes that changing the way we think about our past can increase our present enduring state of happiness in powerful ways.
This is not easy work. In my own experience it’s a practice rather than a destination. It requires courage, strength, and determination to excavate our past, along with a good dose of honesty. It stretches our compassion. We must put aside our tendency to play the victim and take on some responsibility. I did not embark on this sort of work in order to be happy. I did it out of a desire to understand myself, others, and my experience; I wanted to heal. I also wanted peace, which is a defined component of happiness.
Shaking off the belief that our past necessarily determines our future, along with developing gratitude and forgiveness, are key in changing the way we think about our past. Seligman doesn’t write about acceptance, but for me it’s an additional important piece.
Gratitude. Forgiveness. Acceptance.
Looking back through these lenses is challenging, to say the least. Some of us look back on long years of pain and some at a few significant events, but if we are unhappy about our past it feels impossible to approach it with gratitude, forgiveness or acceptance, let alone all three. And we don’t have to, if we don’t care about being happy or healing or moving on.
I do care about those things, and I can attest to the relief of thinking about the past with gratitude for teachers and lessons learned rather than bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, though challenging, softens my tendency to curl up into a hard shell and never come out again. At the end of the day, others don’t victimize us and life is not against us. Life happens to us, and to other people, and we all churn around together, bumping into one another, sometimes with a kiss and sometimes with a knife. Life is chaotic and messy.
For me, acceptance is closely linked with forgiveness. Things happen. We all make choices. Most of us are doing the best we can most of the time. To be human is to be imperfect. If we cannot accept ourselves and others for the complex, inconsistent, occasional hot messes that we are, we are choosing to be chronically unhappy and dissatisfied, not only with life in general, but with ourselves.
The hardest work of all, for me, has been applying gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance to myself. I suspect a lot of people can relate to this. Underneath my hurt and anger with others about parts of my history are rage and abuse towards myself. As I heal that, my grievances with others have fallen away.
When I think about my past and learn how it influences my level of enduring happiness, I feel satisfied with how much work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. My goal at the time wasn’t happiness, exactly, but healing is healing, and I’m happier walking around with scars than I was with open wounds. I’m certainly much happier now than I’ve ever been before, which means I’m more peaceful, and peace was one of my goals.
The best part about working with our past is that we have all the power. We know where we’ve been and what our experience was. We can make choices about how we think about our history. We can refocus and reframe. We can consider our memories from the viewpoint of others who influenced us instead of just our own. We can forgive ourselves for what we did, what we said and who we were, and in doing so we can forgive others.
The past is over, but its influence is not gone. We can choose what that influence will be on our present and future. Will we let it drag us down and hold us back or make it part of the wind beneath our wings?
I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.
Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.
Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.
Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?
So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?
Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.
Journal Note Long Ago
Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man or woman who is afraid.
I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must not ask others to go.
I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.
The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.
This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.
My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.
When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.
Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit — all these inspire me and give me courage.
My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.
And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.
A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.
At 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning, we park in the dark, empty parking lot and use a combination keypad to enter the building and a key to unlock the door to the pool, re-locking it behind us. We turn on lights, computers and automatic doors. We run a shower in the men’s and women’s locker rooms, as the hot water takes several minutes to reach them and the early swimmers complain of cold showers. We check the temperatures and chemicals in the pools. We peel off our winter layers and put on suits, shorts, emergency fanny packs and whistles. We check the day’s schedule. All the while, a rising chorus of voices and laughter comes from outside the still-locked door where the early water aerobics class gathers, as though it’s noon and not O-dark-thirty on a cold November morning. The aerobics teacher gets her music ready and checks the wireless headset. This class is large, so she will teach from the pool deck rather than the water.
Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash
At 7:00 we unlock the door and they stream in, laughing and talking, tousled heads of grey, white and improbable shades of blonde and brown. Not one of them is under 55. This morning the entire class consists of women. They disappear into the locker room, where the mirth and talk continue as they change and shower. I gather up a rescue tube and get comfortable in the lifeguard chair.
Descending the steps into the pool, the women tease one another and complain about the cold water. Many wear glasses, though they’ve removed their hearing aids. Many wear earrings. A couple of them dispense kickboards, foam buoys and floating foam noodles from plastic laundry baskets on shelves at poolside.
On this morning I count 17 in the class. We know one of them had a birthday over the weekend. The instructor gives her a blue plastic tiara and matching wand from the Dollar Store while we all sing “Happy Birthday.” She’s informed the tiara must stay on her head during the class. She presses it firmly onto her grey hair, laughing.
The instructor cues the music. I jiggle the dial on the wireless speaker, which never seems to work properly, and the class begins with the announcement of a Beatles soundtrack. “Hard Day’s Night” starts the warm-up to a 45-minute water aerobics workout.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Music is so evocative. I can’t hear The Beatles without thinking of my brother, who owned and played all their albums when we were growing up. These women are a decade older than I am, and they greet each song with delight. They know every word. They bob up and down, kicking, twisting, using the kickboards and buoys for resistance and strengthening in the water. Most are generous-bodied and their bosoms bounce within the confines of their modestly cut suits. I see lime green, pink and black. I see loosened skin and wrinkled cleavage, pink scalp and cellulite while “Revolution” fills the brightly lit, echoing space.
The instructor guides the class from one set of movements to another. They stand in place. They travel back and forth across the pool. They lift, bend and stretch in a circle. We all sing together. They inform each other, soulfully, “I want to hold your hand.” The water churns with their efforts. “Got to get you into my life!” they shout at one another with hilarious passion.
As I watch, I try to imagine these well-ripened, glorious women as teenagers. I imagine them hearing “Good Day Sunshine” for the first time on radios, records and jukeboxes in diners, in cars and at parties. They were all young once, pretty, idealistic and probably as foolish as most young women are. They had homework and crushes on teachers. They had families and friends and gossiped. The Beatles were part of the soundtrack of their lives. Now, decades later, what old memories, thoughts and feelings do these familiar songs unlock? What stories do they recall, what pleasures, what griefs and disappointments when they hear “All My Loving?”
The very last song is “Yellow Submarine.” By now even I am breathless with laughter. Impossible to hear this music without moving to it, even if confined in a sitting position. The instructor is incapable with mirth. It doesn’t matter. The class guides itself, arms high in the air over their heads, red-faced, panting, dancing in the water. They turn, bump ample hips with one another, gesture flamboyantly, and we all sing at the top of our voices until the music stops and the class ends.
Knowing the routine, the class puts all the equipment away tidily in the sudden quiet. They pull the lane lines back into place and hook them up. They exit the lap pool and move to the 93-degree therapy pool, where they break into groups and chat, some in the shallow end and others floating peacefully in the deep end. The birthday girl is still wearing her blue plastic tiara. Now the talk is more subdued than it was before the class. I hear a discussion about snow shovels, snow blowers, and the performance of various men, hired and otherwise, with these tools. I hear talk of families, grandchildren and plans for the holidays. A group in a corner carries on a low-voiced discussion interspersed with much bawdy laughter. It’s not hard to imagine what they’re talking about. I smile in sympathy. Local news and politics are dealt with, along with the weather, the state of the roads, church gossip, local holiday activities and fund raisers.
It’s just 8:00 on a Monday morning. These women represent part of the backbone of the community. Seasoned, experienced, humorous and wise in the ways of the world, they know exactly who they are and what they’re made of. They’ve loved and lost, worked, raised families, volunteered, suffered grief, illness and injury. They’re outspoken, earthy and unapologetic. They know how to connect with others. They know how to play and laugh. They are kind and compassionate without being sentimental. They know how to love life.
Monday morning we all lived in a yellow submarine for an hour, and proclaimed it joyfully at the top of our voices.