During a recent visit to the hairdressers I met up with an old acquaintance who brought me up to speed with her life. She had ended a ten year relationship and was loved up with her new perfect ‘partner’ of seven weeks. The said ‘partner’ had already moved in and everything was amazing as they played happy families with her three children.
This is a woman who I have known for many years but our paths only cross every couple of years or so. It might sound like I’m judging but I’m really not. It’s just that listening to her I had a moment of clarity that I’m sure could apply to all our lives. You see I recognised a fellow ‘fresh starter’. We really have very little in common other than the desire to frequently start over. My acquaintance does this via relationships, she’s had several long term partners including a couple of husbands and always seems happiest at the start when she’s got it all to play for. There’s an obvious pattern here but she presumably can’t see it.
What became obvious to me is that we all do it although not necessarily in the same way. For some of us it’s jobs or travel, friendships or houses. The sense of new beginnings creates a heady feeling of euphoria, the illusion that we’ve found our perfect life. The truth is once the novelty has worn off, for most of us, we’re back to square one.
The older we get the harder it becomes to make the grandiose changes that we might have embraced when we were young. Moving cities or even countries is easy when you don’t have anything to tie you down but life has a way of, depending how you want to look at it, blessing us or encumbering us with kids, mortgages, careers etc. This means we either have to make do with little changes, my aunt used to decorate her house constantly – she would put her family through the horrible upheaval only to start again a week later when it wasn’t what she’d imagined, or swallow down our dissatisfaction and disappointment.
We all know that alcohol is the great equaliser and I’ve had many surprising conversations with people under the influence. Conversations they wouldn’t dream of having sober. I’ve had women tell me how motherhood is nothing like the fulfilling experience they thought it would be and how they feel ashamed to admit that they go to work not because they have to but because to be at home with their kids would drive them insane. Other women have spoken about their hatred for their successful careers and a desire to just pack it in and get a job at Tesco’s. How can they though when they’ve spent their entire adult lives striving to be in the very place they currently reside – what would people think?
The unwritten rule of drunken confessions is that they are never referred to again and the next morning life goes on as if the dark dirty secrets were never uttered. The truth is though it’s this denial that makes us miserable and leads us to make choices that often make us even more miserable. What those of us who are ‘fresh starters’ fail to see is that wherever we go we take all our disappointments and failings with us. The only way to truly make a change is to examine exactly what it is that we want and have the courage to embrace it.
Nobody gets to middle-age without realising that expecting to be happy all the time is foolish. Alain de Botton put it succinctly when he recently said that being middle-aged means becoming a pragmatic depressive because let’s face it, life is hard. So why do we make it harder than it needs to be by denying ourselves the things that might bring us the most joy.
We seem to live in an age where doing anything for the heck of it is seen as something to be ashamed of. Who can remember learning for pleasure or working ‘just for the money’ to fund your leisure? Nowadays if we aren’t all striving for promotions or reaching targets we’re deemed to be unsuccessful. We are all subject to endless scrutiny courtesy of performance management, a faceless, moronic system designed to help us all become ‘outstanding’ in whatever role we happen to be in. Those of us old enough to remember when some imbecile first came up with the idea that if we weren’t all adhering to mid-term and long-term targets then we weren’t up to the job, will know that at one time Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory actually meant just that. Now though anything other than Outstanding means you have a target on your back. Somehow the definition of the words have been distorted so that to be Satisfactory or Good equates with, in the eyes of more often than not less than satisfactory management, incompetent.
Now I’m the first to admit that given the chance I would spend my life loafing my time away indulging my imagination. I recognise though that not everyone is the same. I inherited my loafer gene from my maternal grandmother who was forced to work three jobs to keep her family afloat after being widowed in her 40s. She was 63 when I was born however and so already retired. A retirement she spent next to the fire with a constant supply of tea and biscuits, reading Mills and Boon books. She was quite possibly the most content woman I’ve ever known. In contrast my mother, who was widowed at 60, has spent the ensuing 11 years filling her life to the brim with courses, groups and volunteering. She doesn’t have a minute to spare and that’s the way she likes it.
She’s always been like that, as kids my sister and I would howl with laughter at her need to list everything she had to do within a day – make breakfast, clean the bathroom, go to the shop, make tea, blah blah blah. We would joke, behind her back of course, how she should include, breathe in and out, switch on the kettle and pick up the tea-cup, such was the minutiae she’d include in her list. The scary thing is though all that list making and boasting about how much you have to do has become the norm. I’m sick of people telling me they are rushed off their feet without a moment to spare, multi-tasking and making me feel guilty for wanting to sit drinking tea all day.
So the upshot is I’m not playing any more. You can stuff your medium and long-term targets that I never read anyway; I’m quite satisfied to be satisfactory. You can keep your multi-tasking, the only thing on my to do list is to get in as much loafing about as humanly possible. Maybe if we all stopped trying to be something we’re not we wouldn’t need to be constantly looking for pastures new. Instead we’d be happy with what we’ve got because we’d have chosen it for the right reasons and not because we felt we should.