"I Have Outlived My Imaginings" (Essay)

July 25, 2017. It truly is a wonderful thing to wake up in the morning. Another day of life, never guaranteed, always expected. But in the era of social media, it is especially so on one's birthday.

It is heartening that after flipping the odometer this many times, that one can still feel special on this day thanks to a few kind words and well-wishes from friends close and casual, and physically near and far. Each comment allowing me the gift to reflect for a moment on how or where we connected, and to think of that person in that moment. How they might be doing this very moment that they reached out to me.

I realized something not long ago that is having profound implications for me personally. I have "outlived" the imaginings of my youth. As a kid I contemplated many things - college, marriage, kids, career - and had many dreams, some of which have come to pass beyond my wildest notions, and others which never will. But I never really thought at all about what it would be like to be "middle-aged". The realization that despite one's best efforts at self-care and good living that the body will physically age and deteriorate, accidents will happen, and that truly no one cheats time forever.

That realization can be pretty disconcerting, and I suspect that I'm not alone. It is all too familiar to wake up in a cold sweat at 4 in the morning, sick with worry about all manner of things I might not have thought to consider in my 20s and 30s. In addition to the made-up dreads and unrealistic worries, there are real and visceral fears - health, financial security, end of life - and they can be absolutely paralyzing. And in those moments, it is too easy to feel alone against all of it.

I was having lunch with some dear friends who are Unitarian ministers the other day. We were all discussing, and frankly kind of "wow"-ing about, how the iPhone's introduction just 10 years ago(!) has had such a profound effect on our lives and human behaviors. It's like an icon for the dizzying pace of technological change. The fallout of those changes in behavior is enormous. Whole sections of the "traditional" middle class economy, especially in manufacturing, have been irrevocably altered by technology and mechanization. It does not take long to fill the back of a dinner napkin with a list of careers that are disappearing or already have done so. Vocations that used to be good work with good pay and dignity in the doing, replaced literally by DIY apps on our smart phones. I know that I have exulted in some of those changes myself.

But the consequences of those changes are enormous too, and most so on the psyche of people who are being displaced by them. I fear that the middle-aged worries and occasional terror that I feel is far more widespread than my own sweat-soaked pillow. I am in the demographic group now experiencing the sharpest increase in suicides; white males aged 45-54. I have known several personally over the past few years; people whom I never would have expected to reach such a level of despair and hopelessness.

It's real stuff, and in between our ears, it can be pretty viscious to not be living up to our expectations, falling short of our parents, or reconciling our self-worth being tied to providing for our families. It hits home - hard - with me that I am part of that group. And truly, I never contemplated this place in my youth. What can I do to make enough to keep up with the cost of living? How can I grow the business for my craft and my talent when entire segments of my "industry" are vanishing? Is what I do still worth anything to anyone enough to continue feeding my family? Will I still be physically able to take care of myself, let alone others? How will we ever retire?

Today, 53rd trip around the sun complete, and I'm still here. I've been blessed with a life rich in extraordinary experiences, reasonably good health, loving family, a wealth of friends, and beauty all around me. I'd like to dream and imagine that the decades hopefully to come will bring more of the same, along with enough financial reward for the work that I'm called to do to somehow give us some larger sense of security, about some aspects of life anyway. It is uncertain, and at times scary. The things we truly control are few indeed.

I am ever hopeful as well as still creative. Some of these changes made my current life possible, even as they sap it now. It is in large part up to me to rise to the challenge and figure out how and where to guide my boat. There is no going upstream, nor fully escaping the currents of the great River of Time. And there can be little doubt that I am now closer to the take-out point than where I put in.

Life is 100% fatal; the only mystery lies in the when, where and how of that endpoint. One can only do one's best to see what lies ahead, and prepare and steer, and remember to marvel at the ride. Every moment, the terrifying as well as the exhilarating. Deep breath then, and onward.

With love to my parents for the gift of my life, and with thanks to the hundreds of well-wishers who made me feel really special today especially :)
Dedicated to the memory and family of Craig Matovich.