Just before we moved from Connecticut to Delaware (where we now live), I was only about a month away from earning my instrument rating on my private pilot's license. From everything I've heard, the instrument rating is the most difficult rating for a private pilot to achieve. If I were to characterize the course content for the instrument rating in two words, I'd have to say “precision navigation" is the key.
When you're first practicing for instrument flight . . . particularly shooting an instrument approach to an airport, you're flying with your instructor using either a ‘hood’ or ‘foggles': wearable devices that restrict your vision so that you can't see outside the cockpit of your aircraft. It simulates the zero-visibility conditions that you'd encounter in real instrument flight. Only toward the end of your extensive training period will your instructor take you up into real instrument conditions (the likelihood of experiencing debilitating spacial disorientation is rather high for a novice - like in the fatal situation experienced by John Kennedy, Jr. some years ago). I have to tell you, though, that there are few experiences more gratifying than, for the first time, breaking out of a true cloud cover and seeing the end of your runway appear directly in front of you perfectly aligned for landing.
One of the features that gives aircraft navigation - and instrument flight - the extreme precision that it has today (and also one of the reasons why a single pilot becomes so incredibly busy during an instrument approach) is the redundancy of navigational methods and devices currently available. There's a variety of different systems, compass (dead reckoning), ADF (automatic direction finder), VOR (very high frequency omnidirectional radio beacon), GPS (global positioning system), and ILS (instrument landing system), just to name some. Newer systems are continuing to be introduced as avionics become more sophisticated. The higher the redundancy factor, the more accurate (and trustworthy) the navigation.
How can we relate all this to men at midlife? It doesn't take much of stretch of imagination to be able to relate decision-making during the midlife transition to navigating through a thick cloud cover. Disorientation in midlife can have the same kinds of fatal effects as in powered flight, only in the latter case, the consequences come at you with a good deal more suddenness. The technical term is ‘powered flight into terrain. ’ That's a fancy name for a crash. In the case of disorientation during the midlife transition, it may spell the end of a career, the loss of a precious relationship, or much, much worse. In that case, how do you navigate your way through the clouds of midlife? How do assure yourself of accuracy for your navigational decisions? And where are you going to get the redundancy you're going to require to avoid getting lured off course by a rogue signal?
For guys, this whole process can be too demanding. After all, men are culturally programmed to be ruggedly individualistic and self-reliant. For whatever reasons, our English-speaking North American culture uses the incredibly powerful psychological motivator shame to reinforce men's required isolation. If you dare to allow yourself to become reliant on others in any meaningful way, says our culture, then you're not a ‘real man’. You're a cultural outcast and pariah, not only to other men but, more particularly, to your own sense of masculinity. Remember the difference between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame': guilt is the negative emotion you feel when you recognize that you have done something bad; shame is the negative emotion you feel when you begin to believe that you are bad (incompetent, defective, inadequate, or unacceptable).
Whereas women are very much accustomed to re-setting their inner moral compass by their constant interrelationships with trusted people in their environment: people with whom they can be comfortable sharing their innermost secrets and most hidden fears, men have no such facility. What's the advantage that women have in their capacity to share their secrets with one another? It gives them the sense that they're not unique, and that others are dealing with the same issues that they are and at the same time. It's not about going around from person to person ‘shopping’ for advice; the advice that's exchanged turns out to be more or less irrelevant. It provides women with that sense of redundancy in their moral navigation systems that helps them to gain (and maintain) a sense of confidence in their own right judgment.
In most cases (except where they are introduced to a depth of personal spirituality that goes quite deeply into the core of their moral decision-making process), men have to fly by the seat of their pants, guessing and hoping that they're at least close to being on-course. When your own inner compass is your sole navigational aid, the kind of pin-point accuracy that I've been talking about here remains nearly inaccessible to you. Think about how often your interpretations of other people's behavior winds up being off the mark. It's the old story of “What's the matter with you, are you blind???" And the answer comes back, “Yes. " Without the depth of communication that women enjoy, men just have to watch one another from the outside and guess as to what's really happening inside. There's not much chance for precision there.
It's time that 21st Century men get over their cultural biases and start adopting an attitude that's less arrogant, self-reliant and shame-based, and adopt a healthier attitude that's more personally vulnerable and more open to others’ experiences and viewpoints. Bouncing your problems and the decisions that you're being faced with off other people, and allow them the possibility of doing the same with you can provide you with the kind of navigational redundancy that every instrument pilot demands. If nothing else, the midlife transition is marked with the inability to rely on all the old assumptions, habits, and behavior patterns that used to get you by. In midlife, you're genuinely flying blind. If you want to get through it without a ‘hard landing, ’ it would benefit you to learn new and other-centered ways of evaluating your choices and making the decisions that will effect (for better or worse) the rest of your life . . . starting now.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown