I've been feeling rather lost lately. I made a decision about a year ago to take a risk and pursue a passion and a life dream, and now I'm not so sure I made the right choice. Let me explain. When my son left for college two years ago I entered an existential crisis and found myself suddenly living in a vacuum, a very quiet vacuum. And in the midst of all that silence I began to question the meaning of life, and more specifically, the meaning of my life. I questioned whether I was making a real contribution to this world, and I questioned my purpose, and whether this was all there was to life. I felt compartmentalized, somewhat irrelevant and increasingly invisible.
I believed I was at a crossroads, a fork-in-the-road if you will. I imagined that if I pursued one fork-path, I would accept my life choices, throw in my youth towel, and age quietly, without question or challenge. But if I chose the other fork-path, I would find a way of transforming the many losses of middle age -- full-time mothering, my youthful passions, good skin tone and my body's ability to regulate its own temperature, into opportunities -- life-altering, and transformative opportunities. I imagined this path would involve renewed authenticity, resilience and increased vitality, where I challenged the status quo and increased my visibility. Then I began to wonder if there were other women out there who felt the way I did, and I wondered if I had something to contribute to the conversation.
The desire to make a meaningful contribution to this world was not a new one for me. I became a social worker because I wanted to be an agent of change; I wanted to rattle cages and advocate for social justice; I wanted to connect deeply with others, and walk alongside them on their life journeys. But somewhere along the line I entered the world of academia and began writing about topics that had the greatest likelihood of getting published in academic journals. I found my career exciting and intellectually stimulating, but ultimately too constraining. I felt increasingly disconnected from my social work roots, and from the lives of real people. And I found myself increasingly disconnected from myself.
I decided that the contribution I wanted to make was writing books about things I cared about, that were personal to me, and one of those books I wanted to write was about women and middle age. I did not want to write this book as an objective scholar, but as a sister, walking right alongside other women, hand-in-hand, soul-to-soul. This book would be about my own journey as a middle-aged, empty-nesting, single-mom, and the journeys of the middle-aged women around me. I wanted to open up a dialogue, stir things up and challenge the status quo, so that our collective paths could be paved with more daring authenticity and radical transparency. And since I wasn't sure I could accomplish this while engaged in full-time university life, I picked the fork-path less traveled and quit my job.
Fast forward one year and I must admit that I have absolutely no idea if I made the right choice.
When I was pondering this decision I had a vision of what my new life would look like. I pictured it full of vibrant and powerful women, and writing groups, lots and lots of writing groups. I pictured new friendships and new opportunities. I pictured more creativity, more flexibility, less compartmentalization, and more freedom. During busy stretches I feel excited and optimistic, convinced that I made the right decision. But then there are other stretches, like the one I'm in now, when I have nothing on my calendar for weeks, when my savings account is dwindling, when I'm not on track to meet my writing goals, and when I miss aspects of university life, such as the camaraderie with colleagues and students (to be honest, I also miss health insurance and a regular paycheck). On these days, when I find myself in a passion wasteland, I wonder what the heck I was thinking, and I question whether I really was at a fork in the road, or just a roundabout where I am now destined to travel in an endless circle, going nowhere.
There are many decisions in life that fall squarely into good/bad, right/wrong categories. Sleeping with someone else's spouse, drinking and driving, stealing, sending drunk texts to the man who just rejected you: all bad, wrong decisions, because they are either immoral or it's obvious that no good will come from them. But there are a whole lot of other decisions, which I call lifestyle decisions, that fall squarely in the gray you-zig-I-zag zone, and those are the decisions I struggle with the most.
Lifestyle decisions often determine the quality and course of our lives -- who we date (and marry), who we break up with (and divorce), what careers we pursue, whether we follow our life's passions, and at what cost. These decisions are based less on some moral code of right and wrong, and more on our personal preferences, our accrued wisdom, and our ability to manage risk. Lifestyle decisions are risky because they don't come with giant red arrows pointing the way, which for many of us, makes these types of decisions scary because the worthiness of our decisions are assessed less on our preparedness, our courage, and our intentions, and more on the outcome of our decisions; in other words, whether we succeed or fail. And there are always variables that influence the outcomes of our lifestyle decisions that we can neither anticipate nor control.
I wonder though -- what makes any lifestyle decision a success or failure? Does an undesired outcome render a decision bad? Or are there really no bad lifestyle decisions at all, only the failure of not pursuing our passions? Do I feel discouraged right now because I made a foolish decision to leave my job for some unrealistic pipe dream? Or am I just experiencing a bump in the road -- a sort of passion-pursuing "hump day" that I just need to push through? And if the outcome of my decision doesn't look exactly as I imagined and I return to academia before I write my book, does that mean that my efforts and risk-taking were all for naught?
Some people never pursue their life's passions because they are unwilling to face the possibility of failure. They manage the inherent risks in lifestyle decision-making by never making a decision at all. They live safe lives. They live timid lives. But I don't want to live a safe life. I want to live a bold one, which means that the decision to pursue my passions cannot be evaluated solely on a pre-determined concept of a successful outcome, but rather on the lessons I have learned, the ways I have grown, the experiences I have had, and the contributions I have made.
So while I may be feeling a bit lost right now and unsure of my decision, and while I do not know what the future holds or what the outcome of my choice will be, I will not regret my decision to leave my job. By taking this risk I have created space in my life, space that could not have existed any other way, and I just have to trust that something good will fill that space -- wonderful experiences, life lessons, new people and opportunities, new contributions, and the knowledge that I was courageous enough to try; and hopefully, a wildly popular book about women and middle age.