I’ve written about this before, but it’s natural for even pessimistic young people to have the underlying assumption that life is an uphill trajectory, they have all the time in the world (despite being age-obsessed), their dreams and goals will materialize, they are moving towards some magical future when their lives will coalesce, and everything is about them. When I left my early thirties and lost this youthful hubris, I was lost and lethargic. I was most likely going through an identity crisis– if those things were no longer true, what was my life about? What were my goals? Was life just more of the same, but now I was on the downhill trajectory?
I estimate I spent about ten years in that confused place. Marrying and having kids became a bigger priority, if only because they would have given me goals, a distraction, a way to fit in and feel loved and secure and to not feel so lost.
I think one of the keys to feeling better lately is that I’ve realized that growth doesn’t stop past forty, it just looks and feels like a totally different experience. It’s less about me and more about everything else, it’s more diffuse than up or down, it’s less goal and security oriented and more immaterial than material, and it’s more about accepting what is than dreaming about what will be. I wish I could have realized this early on life, but I’m not sure that would have been possible.
Some thoughts from The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkman:
It is alarming to consider how many major life decisions we take primarily in order to minimise present-moment emotional discomfort… consider any significant decision you’ve ever taken that you subsequently came to regret: a relationship you entered despite being dimly aware that it wasn’t for you, or a job you accepted even though, looking back, it’s clear that it was mismatched to your interest or abilities. If it felt like a difficult decision at the time, then it’s likely that, prior to taking it, you felt the gut-knotting ache of uncertainty; afterwards, having made a decision did those feelings subside? If so, this points to the troubling possibility that your primary motivation in taking the decision wasn’t any rational consideration of its rightness for you, but simply the urgent need to get rid of your feelings of insecurity. p. 87
‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning,’ argued the social psychologist Erich Fromm. ‘Uncertainty is the very condition to impel men to unfold his powers.’ p. 99
‘To be a good human,’ concludes the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, applying this perspective to her own field of ethics, ‘is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life; that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.” p. 99
This, then, is the deep truth about insecurity: it is another word for life. That doesn’t mean it’s not wise to protect yourself, as far as you can, from specific dangers. But it does mean that feeling secure and really living life are, in some ultimate sense, opposites. And that you can no more succeed in achieving perfect security than a wave could succeed in leaving the ocean. p. 149