For months now I’ve been simultaneously not writing and wanting to write, as life swirled around me and time felt packed tight with the thousand things we all do to keep going. For tens of weeks I have been sitting on my own shoulder, watching my feet step out in new directions, seeing through eyes that are fixed on a new horizon, whispering in my own ear, “This is worth remembering. This is where the prologue ends and the real story finally begins.” So here goes, this is where it starts.
This is a time of bravery, this midlife span where old expectations are falling away and the new ones are still taking shape. It’s a time of bravery lost, of confidence shaken and hopes dashed—but it’s also a time of bravery born from the darkness of loss and sorrow, bravery spawned in the bitterness of disappointment and nourished in the tenderness of our first adult attempts to parent ourselves. By midlife we’ve tasted enough self-loathing to last a lifetime, and begun to turn away from that putridly seductive fruit in search of what inspires and deepens and captivates us. We are finding our courage in the ashes of our adolescent dreams and saying over and over to ourselves “Why the Hell Not?”
These aren’t necessarily bad times. There are lovers and spouses and parents and children that fill our hearts, there are careers that are rewarding, and projects that command attention and devotion. There are joys large and small, challenges that exhilarate and elevate us, insights that show us who we are and what we are for. All these years that we’ve spent building and struggling and persevering are paying off. Some lives around us seem picture-perfect, balanced, uniformly functional. Others seem more precarious, more tightly-stretched, more vulnerable. The word “seem” is necessary here because the one truth we have all come to know, in the quarter-century since we reached adulthood, is that what we choose to show the world is not to be confused with what life actually is. We all know the secrets we keep, and we are wise enough to know that those around us are keeping secrets too. We also know that’s just fine—there are barely enough hours in the day to cope the truth that seethes just below the surface in our own heads, let alone in other peoples’.
Truth is the fuel for bravery. As we become able to see who we really are, as we gain enough experience and enough insight to step into our own skins, we become owners and custodians of our truth. Some of us stuff it far, far down where we think it can be safe from exposure, but we know it’s there, and while we may not be able to call it by its name, it shapes us from its hiding place. Some of us approach it like a small child approaching a strange and scary dog…one hand outstretched, head averted, toes reaching for forward traction, the other hand reaching back and holding fast to anything that feels stable. Still others of us sell it short, skimming only the sweet froth from the top and leaving untasted the dark, unfamiliar shadows underneath that make us whole and balanced. We dance around the truth, lie to it, lie about it, decorate it, ignore it, make fun of it, but it is ours. Midlife is the fulcrum of life’s teeter-totter, the long, poised moment between the uphill climb from the womb and the downhill—much faster—trot towards the end. It takes bravery to stand here, facing this most central truth, knowing it is our burden not only to carry but to integrate and understand.
Bravery and truth are the twin weapons we bring towards that good night. They are the foci of our great ellipse, shaping our wanderings into a coherent path, continually pulling us away from inattention and delusion so that we can continue our journey with integrity. Our bravery is not foolhardy by nature, although it can provoke recklessness. It is not unafraid, although it can deny the power of fear. It is the bravery of knowing there are worse things than loss, that there are worse things than pain, and that we already know that we are strong enough to bear the unbearable. By midlife we have all encountered experiences that brought us to our knees, crushed our hearts and spirits and spit us out to find our way back to the sunlight. We know how it feels to give up hope of healing and survival and to heal and survive anyway. Our courage is that of the veteran, of Priam, not Achilles. Our truth is not rooted in the world’s approval, though we may have it. Our truth is one of exploration, of inquiry, of self-knowledge and curiosity and radical acceptance rather than rejection.
As we come to know ourselves and devote ourselves to living more genuine, more courageous lives, we must consider speaking and living those lives honestly in the world. Some of us refuse to do this, hampered perhaps by shame or fear. Some of us leap headlong into new and precipitous ways of living, releasing too completely the lives we have built and the lessons they have taught us. We all struggle to discern what our responsibilities are, where our joy and our suffering are to be found, what we can afford to risk. We look around for people to share our truth with, and we consider what it means to hear another’s truth and encourage its growth. Bravery and truth can deepen and enrich existing relationships, or close those who have run their course. They can open new and exciting doors for mutual discovery in strong marriages and lifelong friendships, or they can force us to relinquish those we have clung to overlong. As we exercise our freedom to become who we are, we recognize our preferred fellow-travelers and devote ourselves to the friendships that will inform our old age. Midlife contains heartache for many of us as our youthful errors of judgment bear their inevitable fruit; illness and death brush against us; financial and professional struggles challenge our priorities; we must let go of our sense of limitless, immortal potential and seek instead to live with full and present attention right now. Bravery and truth.
©Mary Braden 2015