Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"The Wisdom of Accepting the Possible" by Francine Cournos, M.D.

A friend recently sent me a link to an interesting article in The Atlantic on wisdom and mid-life crises (link below). The article is long, but its basic gist is that people have a "U-shaped curve" to life satisfaction and happiness that dips in one's forties, but then moves steadily upward with age. 

I sent the article to my mom, who is turning 70 this June and still works full time as a psychiatrist in both public and private practice. When I was in my teens and twenties, I thought I knew everything, like most people that age. Now I know I don't. So I wanted my mom's perspective on mid-life crises and aging. Here's what she had to say, re-printed with her permission (and her beautiful face) below.

Interesting article. Both dad and I agree that we've gotten progressively happier as we've gotten older. The way I think about it is that the older you get, the further back you can step from the details of your own life to see the larger picture. You accept that life is finite, and no matter how much or little success you've had (career, social, financial, etc.) it's not an issue of personal triumph or failure, but basically one of accepting that each person's life is finite, and all you need to hold yourself accountable for is doing the best you can with the person you really are and the particular and often arbitrary challenges that you've been presented with. 

There's no point to regret. You had reasons for the choices you made at the time you made them, and you can't do any better than moving forward with what makes sense to you at the moment. By the time you have hindsight, you're a different person at a different stage of life. 

I'm not religious obviously, but I do have a sense of spirituality, of being part of a larger world, of being one of a billion possible manifestations of what a person can be, with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, interacting with others in ways that may help or change them in small ways, just as others interact with me to help me grow and prosper. Our limitations are built into what it is to be human and we don't have to fault ourselves for that. If understanding the human condition is wisdom, then yes, I agree that we're more likely to be wise as we age, and wisdom helps us feel content.

My view is not one of a U-shaped curve. It's a linear graph. When you're a kid, you think your world is how things work. As you get older, you see that there are other possibilities at every level: other places to live, other ways to raise children, other careers to have and so on. So you exercise those choices. In mid-life, regardless of your choices, you discover that you're in the box of your choices. So you think, why am I in this particular box and do I really want to be here? It seems like a dilemma of past choices, where all the choices you made could have been the wrong ones, reflecting your failings, your lack of imagination, or your bad luck. 

So you contemplate what to do about that. Whether you make any changes at this point or not, one day it hits you: everyone is in a box! None of us are given infinite time, options, skills, insights, perfect health, etc. And all along, things keep happening that you didn't anticipate and can't control, both good and bad. And that's what life is! No one gets the best deal: infinite life, infinite choice, infinite health, because that possibility doesn't exist. 

So you might as well take advantage of the real life that you have, welcome each day as best you can, and stop bemoaning the human condition. It's not a sense of defeat. It's the wisdom of accepting the possible.

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