'Be careful what you pray for, ‘cause you just might get it. ’ Have you ever heard that saying? In my opinion, it so perfectly describes the pitfalls of adulthood. Keep in mind that I have what I think is quite a unique definition for ‘adulthood': childhood without the parental constraints. The dreams of the young adult are very often a mixture of the soul's passion with a child's naieveté. It's the latter that can land you in an emotional soup around the onset of the midlife transition.
Consider this quote from author Dan Millman (The Way of the Peaceful Warrior):
If you don't get what you want, you suffer; if you get what you don't want, you suffer; even when you get exactly what you want, you still suffer because you can't hold on to it forever. Your mind is your predicament. It wants to be free of change. Free of pain, free of the obligations of life and death. But change is a law, and no amount of pretending will alter that reality.
The problem with achieving ‘success’ derives from the fact that, as an adult, your definition of ‘success’ is too limited. However, this realization doesn't really hit home until midlife. If you've been successful, there's a good probability that you're going to (or already have) run into one of two unsettling situations. These come upon you when you've achieved a certain mastery in your field. In the first scenario, the pressure is immediately on you to surpass yourself. Not only do you have the face the onset of boredom ('been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt), but you also quickly become aware that there are younger, brighter, even more ambitious people than you chasing behind you. What happens to your success when you've been overtaken by people more successful than you?
The second scenario can be even more painful. It occurs when your drive to succeed allows you to attain your highest goals. Only then do you have the opportunity to stop and look around. You may even allow yourself to feel your feelings about what you've achieved. Those pesky emotions tend to flood in around the onset of midlife. What happens to you when you look at your success and feel only disgust? Very often, when people have achieved their goals they discover that the achievement didn't bring them what they thought it would or, even worse, that it did bring them what they thought it would, and it wasn't what they really wanted, after all. The French have a great word to describe that feeling: ennui. It describes a feeling beyond boredom - all the way to emptiness.
Is there a cure for ennui? I think so, and midlife presents exactly the context we need to embark on it. You can only break open the dead end of success by redefining it for yourself. The superficial definitions that you inherited from your childhood need to be revisited. You need to go much more deeply into the bigger questions of life. This is essentially a spiritual quest, and can't genuinely be satisfied by anything less. Until you're prepared to take a serious look at the core purpose of your life, you'll be left chasing after one unsatisfying ‘success’ goal after another. Your real purpose (I prefer the term ‘destiny') can't be confined to a simple definition because, as Millman suggested our opening quote, ‘purpose', ‘destiny', and ‘success’ are all dynamic terms: they evolve even as you pursue them.
It takes courage to undertake a spiritual quest because it means giving up forever the hope of finding ‘the answer’. Every choice you make in life changes the question. Yet, on a truly spiritual quest, there's no possibility of ennui because there's no fixed ‘goal’ to attain. You can never become obsolete and surpassed by other younger, brighter, and more ambitious people, because your spiritual path belongs to you alone. You are the one and only expert in being you. Do you have what it takes to face the midlife challenge: to become the person you were always meant to be?
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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