I’ve never really had a mid-life crisis. It seems somewhat ridiculous to think that one could somehow reverse the effects of life by veering dramatically off course, as some do. Life is like a moving sidewalk and it’s hard to fight its forward motion. Even if we try to pretend we’re staying in place or try to resist the forward movement by walking backwards, life goes on. That’s how it works. We’re born, we age, and then we die. I think there are actually research studies to prove this. And unless we’ve missed the evidence, everyone throughout the history of everything has followed this course.
But lately, I feel myself getting a tinge of that mid-life itch—even though some would argue that my “mid life” occurred some years ago. Oh, don’t fear. I’m not going to attempt to climb Mt. Everest or buy a Lamborghini or even start dying my silver-toned sideburns. But I am questioning the path I’ve taken and where my future journey will lead. And maybe that’s not such a bad idea—to question, that is. Unless, of course, the questions cause me to purchase the jet black version of Just for Men’s Sideburn Coloring System.
So what am I questioning exactly? Glad you asked.
Mainly, I’m wondering what the hell I have done with my life. I know that might sound a bit harsh and I can guarantee that my wife will edit this and say, “Must you use such language?” My answer will be, “Hell yes.” Using “such language” not only gives my statement just the right emphasis, it makes me chuckle…damnit.
You see, I’m sixty-one years old and I find myself at a bit of a crossroads in my life. I feel like my sense of purpose is different than it was a few years ago. In fact, I’ve discovered that my focus has changed several times since I began my career in 1986. And as I cross over the crest and head for the downhill side of life, I want to make sure I’ve got the right focus so I won’t tumble down to the bottom too quickly. But first, a little background.
Before college, I wanted to be a doctor. After college, my grades suggested that I barely qualified to be a patient. Not only did I lack the grades, I lacked the ongoing commitment as well as the desire to spend my entire day poking around sick people. According to my pre-med advisor, those were somewhat mandatory qualities that every medical school in the country looked for. So, with my childhood dream of medical school dashed, I chose the next logical path—social work. Or as my parents said, “You want to be a what?”
When the pre-med direction didn’t work out, my college sociology professor suggested that I might enjoy the field of social work. Although social work is less prestigious and slightly less lucrative than medicine (see “social work sarcasm”), I thought it might fit my personality better since I was already less prestigious and less lucrative at the time. So, I entered a social work master’s program and truly loved everything about it. And get this, I made good grades.
After two years of intensive study to work in the mental health field as a therapist, I took a job that matched my training exactly: hospice care. Ironically, I would be working with the sickest of all patients. Go figure. To be clear though, this wasn’t my original plan. Yet, it was the only job I was offered when I got out of graduate school. I applied to a number of other agencies but simply got out-qualified by the other applicants. And since there wasn’t a long line of social workers dying (sorry) to work in hospice, I landed my first real job. Lucky for me, this became my new passion. I loved the hospice world. It was such rewarding work and my colleagues were the most wonderful people on the planet.
After about ten years of working in the field of death and dying, I made an interesting discovery. I seemed to be defining myself by my work. Whenever I met someone new, I mentioned my job almost immediately. Apparently, I wanted to make sure that the other person knew I was a humble caring individual who walked proudly with patients through the dying process. I can’t count the number of times someone responded to my career choice by saying, “Oh, you must be such a special person.” And I had pretty much convinced myself that indeed, I was such a special person—in fact, I felt I was probably more special than the people who made those comments. I’m not proud of this, but it is what it is.
Luckily for me, just when I began to question whether I was working in hospice for the right reasons, I stumbled into a new line of work. I became a professional speaker and humorist—as most former hospice employees do, eh? This new direction came about because I was doing funny presentations at hospice conferences and get this, they don’t have a lot of funny presentations at hospice conferences. So, my programs stuck out like a sore thumb. Eventually, after speaking at a number of events for free, my boss told me that I could actually get paid. I said, “For talking?” She replied, “Yes.”
As someone who has a natural, or as some might put it, “problematic” gift for talking, I thought I had stumbled onto the mother lode of all jobs. And since speaking came so easily to me, it was far less stressful than being around sick people or walking with patients through the dying process. As a result, I have stuck with the talking-for-pay gig for more than a quarter of a century. And yes, I grasp how many words that adds up to.
Interestingly, I am now at the point where I’m starting to question whether this is still my passion. While it certainly played to my abilities and payed way better than social work, I’ve started to wonder what good I’m doing. You see, if you’re a doctor and someone comes to you with a problem, you either fix it or you do the best that you can to ease the suffering. There’s an obvious cause and effect in the work that doctors do. This too, I believe, has been proven through research.
As a professional speaker, however, I’m basically talking. I’m not saving lives, curing cancer, or even solving any complicated business problems. I’m simply entertaining people and giving them a bit of a new perspective on their life and work. And to be honest, there were no grades or years of commitment required for me to qualify for this job.
So, this is a long way of telling you what led to my mid-life questioning. I’m starting to wonder whether it’s time to change the way I do my work. As a newly certified EMT and firefighter, I can now help the victim of a car accident or someone having a heart attack. And if I really wanted to tap into the fullest of my abilities, I could also offer a short Ted-like talk in the back of the ambulance on the way the the hospital. Bottom line though, as a first responder, I can offer clear, practical value when someone is having a really bad day.
Now, let me be clear. I am not negating any part of my life or career—especially those jobs that treated me so very well for many years. I’m only asking a question as I go forward. Perhaps, I want to define myself in a new way, similar to when I left hospice social work to become a speaker. Perhaps, as I move into a less active and grayer time in my life, I need something else to keep me fulfilled. Or perhaps, I just need to mix things up.
Whatever the answer is to my question, I think questioning is the way we move forward on that moving sidewalk of life. Rather than acting rashly, perhaps if we ask more questions, we find better answers. If we find better answers, we might find our path. And let’s be honest, asking questions is definitely less disruptive for me than driving my Lamborghini sporting jet black sideburns on my way to climb Mt. Everest. At least I hope it is!
Ron- I always love your blog posts- and enjoyed hearing you in person a few years ago in SWVA. I thought as a wordsmith and a speaker- you may enjoy learning the derivation of the term “motherload” vs. “mother lode” as I did, and feel free to now lord it over others (which I am trying really, really hard not to!) Here’s to your new questions- and a great reminder for me, as well.