Middle Age and the Tyranny of Choice

I spent most of my youth striving to be capable. I practiced my trumpet and learned the capital cities of every country in the world. Like most children, I spent all day, every day, in a circumstance intended to turn me into Productive Member of Society – aka school. Every day, for more than 16 years I did this. And I learned the difference between a Madrigal and a Motet, the four main castes of India, how to conjugate the past tense in two languages, and why CFCs were denuding the ozone layer through the power of catalysts. I also learned things like how to organize my time for a large project, that you should not wash your whites and colors together if you want your whites to not be grays, that if you leave your grounds in your coffee maker over Christmas break it will be moldy when you get back, and how to live within your means.

And when I graduated, over a dozen years ago now, I was actually capable of being a productive member of society. But the learning didn’t stop.

I learned how to program web pages and design relational databases to drive them.

I learned how to cook a turkey dinner for 20+ people.

I learned how to write and teach a Sunday school curriculum to teenagers.

I learned how to run an efficient meeting.

I learned how to get a nutritious dinner on the table almost every night, with enough leftovers for lunch.

I learned how to write blog posts regularly.

I learned how to nurse a baby and change a diaper, even at 2 in the morning.

I learned a thousand other things, building up a capacity to learn quickly what I needed to know, to triage needs, to manage stress and to decide what didn’t need to be done.

And now, in my mid-30s, I feel like I am at the height of my powers. There are few things that I might want to do that I cannot – with time and attention – do.

And therein, my friends, lies the rub. Time. Attention. Focus. I am catastrophically short of these two things. My work is a constant source of new learning and skill, and requires 100% of my abilities nearly every day (except for those days when it really pushes me). It is a really great feeling to have a job that is so interesting and engaging, but I come home tired and worn out at the end of the day.

The running of a family with a rich social life takes so much of the rest of my time. There’s dinner with friends, and Lego League. My sons need my time, love and attention. My husband and I married each other because we want to spend our days together, every day. My God calls me to service in church. There are dinner parties, concerts, laundry piles, fellowship events, fund-raisers, work trips, produce to preserve, play-dates, Library-pizza nights, holidays and birthdays. I feel like I was flat-out for two months, from mid-September to mid-November.

And this is where that capability becomes a hard choice. I *can* do so many things. Yes, I can bake a pie for preschool’s Thanksgiving celebration. Yes, I can play trumpet for Christ the King day. Yes, I can write letters to the Town Council and show up to meetings in support of Stoneham Bikeway. Yes, I can bring a donation to the food pantry drive and buy pajamas for an 11 year old boy who has none. Yes, yes, yes, I can – and do – do these things. But I look beyond to all the things I could do, and have not chosen to do.

Within my skills and capabilities…

I could run for Town Council myself, and serve my community.

I could resume a leadership role in the church. I could teach Sunday School. I could sing in the choir.

I could volunteer at a food pantry.

I could be part of a community symphony, or a brass quintet, or wind ensemble.

I could be on PTO.

I could form a LeanIn circle.

I could actually chaperone a school field trip one of these days.

I could foster a child. I could adopt a child.

Heck, I look at the Healthcare.gov website and think to myself, “I could do better than that. I have done better than that.”

There are so many things I have the capability to do, so many things that are worthwhile – and I look at them and I do not think, “I cannot do that”. I think, “I have chosen not to do that. I have decided that is not more important than what I am doing now.” And you know? That’s a hard thing to realize. I am out of energy, and anything I add to my list requires something to be taken off. I, and my family, pay a steep price if what I take off is any time to relax and recharge.

What about you? What could you do, but don’t do? How do you deal with the choices you don’t make?

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3 thoughts on “Middle Age and the Tyranny of Choice

  1. When I was about at the same age, I wrote a similar note which I framed – maybe I’ll show it to you some day. You ARE at the top of your game and it is good that you are beginning to listen to your mind and body tell you that you can choose not to do it all. Choices are meaningful and determine the roads you travel – continue to make them thoughtfully as I know you do.

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  2. ” Time is the fire in which we burn.”
    Dr. Tolian Soran

    Seriously, as I get older Time is getting to be a big issue. I don’t know if it’s my age, or something else, but I am getting greedy about time. I grudge almost anything that takes me away from my little daily routine, and spontaneity is dreaded. I could say it is because I have a lot more years behind me than before me, but I have aged with grace. That is, I don’t spend a lot of time pining about the past, nor regretting getting older. But time has become obsessive with me, and it is preventing me from enjoying a lot of things right now.

    My only point is, enjoy it while it is there. I noticed a rapid decrease in energy as I aged, and it seemed that when the kids needed less attention it left me rapidly, as if I no longer needed to rise to the challenge so I lost it due to atrophy. I no longer have to scramble to get things done. Maybe I miss that!

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  3. I keep returning to this post.

    I was going to email you, but couldn’t figure out how to do that, so I’m trying to figure out what to say as a public comment.

    “The choices you don’t make” resonates with me, though probably not in the way you intended. In my 20s, I chose to marry someone and (long story short) as a result I’m now in my 40’s as a widow trying to single-parent two very challenging young children.

    In some ways it’s been clarifying: in the wake of tragedy you can let go of almost everything, outside of your family, that demands your time and energy.

    But what I think got to me about your post is the question of choices. We can’t see the full ramifications of our choices when we make them. Not that I would change what I did – my husband was a wonderful man. Yet, I am surprised by how hemmed in I am in my current life, by the choices I made almost 20 years ago.

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