As I reach closer to living half a century, there is something very liberating about getting older. When I was young, I was hard on myself and choices seemed limited and tough. I was hard on myself to be pretty, thin, smart, successful, unique, the life of the party. And there was a sense of urgency that all of those things had to be done “now”. I thought, I must do all these things before I “get old”. I used to think that urgency came from seeing my father pass away in an early age at the same age I am right now, hence I must be doomed for the same life’s plan, but I don’t think that anymore. While I think there is still some part of it that have to do with my dad, I think there is a large part of how society works.
There are two things in my life that I was drawn into early on hook, line and sinker: the fear of being ordinary and finding the path of happiness, and they are somewhat intertwined. Hooked by society, the media or the movies, that I must accomplish everything in my youth, I was somewhat obsessed with doing the next big thing that would finally bring me happiness while I was young. And those things were in the form of the best job ever, the best relationship ever, my dream home, my beautiful children, my most amazing art project that would bring me all the stardom that I was crying for, because they would all make me feel so much less ordinary. How could I go through life with mediocrity and then… just die?
The movie, American Beauty, has always been one of my favorite movies. It’s a great story of complicated characters about self-obsession, self-loathing, and self-realization. There are two great lines from that movie, the first one from the young, self-obsessed character, Angela Hayes who said, “I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary.” And then later in the movie from the older, self-realized character, Lester Burnham, who said, thinking about the last moments of his life, “Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst….and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold onto it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure, But don’t worry… you will someday.”
When you think about the last moments of your life, surely they would conjure up the favorite people, things and moments of your life. Possibly those things will be your children, your spouse, your parents, the smell of your favorite flower, the colors of a sunset, the quietness of the earth while the snow falls. When I was young I wasn’t really thinking about those things too much. I was too busy trying to create those moments rather than just being part of the moments.
So the liberation of my middle age has everything to do with cutting ties with the past and the future. Cutting ties from future expectations, cutting ties from the old guilt and shame that I never really did the amazing things I was supposed to do when I was young. But it’s okay. Really, it’s okay.
I used to think that finding the end of the road was happiness, as if it had some kind of pot of gold. I’ve been to the end of the road plenty of times, and I’ll tell you, there is no pot of gold. Happiness is not at the end of any road — no new job, no new relationship, no new home, no new state, no new art project — happiness is just being on the road. Happiness is being present in every part of your life. Feel the dirt. Smell the wildflowers. Sit on the mountaintop. Inhale the air. Feel the grief. Cry. Laugh. Dance. Hug someone.
And doing all that, wouldn’t that be the less ordinary life of all?