ChangeFamily/CommunicationReflectionApril 20, 20170Going Off-Road — Mentally

You know those TV ads that fea­ture rugged guys and pret­ty women explor­ing the wilder­ness in their shiny new Jeep Grand Chero­kee, Toy­ota 4Runner, or Sub­aru Outback?

Back here in the real world, I sus­pect that the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple who buy those vehi­cles nev­er take them off-road. It’s just that the idea of head­ing out on our own, beyond where the pave­ment stops, is so appeal­ing to most of us that automak­ers have been milk­ing those fan­tasies for years in hopes of dri­ving more car sales.  They believe peo­ple will watch those ads and think, If only I drove a ___________, then I’d have  the free­dom to live life on my own terms, not fol­low­ing soci­ety’s rules.

The off-road fan­ta­sy res­onates because most of us often feel hemmed in by our respon­si­bil­i­ties, by oth­ers’ expec­ta­tions of us, by the rules and con­straints of soci­ety. Buy­ing a heavy-duty car and day-dream­ing about dri­ving it right off the edge of the high­way pro­vides us an illu­sion of free­dom with a soupcón of ballsiness.

The iron­ic thing, though, is that even though most of us will nev­er go off-road phys­i­cal­ly, more of us are hav­ing to go off-road psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly than ever before. Think of our inter­nal “high­way” as the assump­tions we make about what our role in soci­ety “should” be — those assump­tions are fray­ing and falling apart in a way they nev­er have before. And, more and more, we’re hav­ing to find our own path through this 21st cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al landscape.

For exam­ple, six­ty years ago, if I were a mar­ried woman of 65 with grown chil­dren and grand­chil­dren (as I am), my “high­way” would be pret­ty clear. I would be expect­ed to be retired from what­ev­er job I might have had (most like­ly as a teacher, nurse, clerk, fac­to­ry or office work­er). Though I might have gone back to work after my kids were out of the house, in my 60s I would be expect­ed to stop work­ing and spend my time tak­ing care of the house, my hus­band, and per­haps the grand­kids; to do age-appro­pri­ate activ­i­ties (crafts, gar­den­ing, church or char­i­ty work); and per­haps — if we had some sav­ings — to travel.

Today that very defined “road” is still being fol­lowed by many women in their six­ties — but a big per­cent­age of us are tru­ly going “off-road” and hack­ing very dif­fer­ent lives out of the wilder­ness: con­tin­u­ing to work while re-think­ing the idea of retire­ment; using the exper­tise gained through­out our careers to start new busi­ness­es, either for-prof­it or not-for-prof­it; begin­ning new rela­tion­ships; doing buck­et-list things our moms and grand­mas would nev­er have con­sid­ered. And some of us are even doing tra­di­tion­al things in new ways. I just read about a com­pa­ny called Rent A Grand­ma — basi­cal­ly, a ser­vice that match­es “grand­mas” (mature women with a love of chil­dren and lots of expe­ri­ence rais­ing kids and run­ning a house­hold) with fam­i­lies who need them, since their own grand­mas might be off doing some­thing else and not avail­able to them.

And all these pos­si­bil­i­ties for men­tal and cul­tur­al off-road­ing don’t just exist for peo­ple my age. Anoth­er exam­ple: six­ty years ago, a young man of 22 would prob­a­bly already be doing the job that he’d have for the rest of his work­ing life (only about 1 in 10 men had col­lege degrees in the US in 1957), sav­ing mon­ey to get mar­ried, and prepar­ing to be the sole — or at least major — sup­port of his wife and chil­dren.  His path was laid out.

Now, that young man can take any of a vari­ety of paths — or make up his own. He could go to col­lege, get a job, join a com­mune, trav­el the world with a back­pack tend­ing bar.  He could get mar­ried (though most 22-year-olds don’t, these days), or he could live alone, with room­mates or a girl­friend (or boyfriend) — or at home with his par­ents.  He might use his twen­ties to decide what career path to fol­low, and that path could be some­thing that did­n’t exist before he start­ed doing it.

So what does this imply, this new abil­i­ty to blaze our own trail through life? First, it means we’re all going to have to get much bet­ter at learn­ing and doing new things. If you’re inter­est­ed in that top­ic and new to this blog, I wrote a book last year, Be Bad First, that’s all about how to be great at being a novice.  Which, if you’re men­tal­ly off-road­ing, invent­ing your life as you go, is a crit­i­cal capability.

The oth­er thing, I’m find­ing, is that men­tal off-road­ing requires tremen­dous inde­pen­dence and courage. I feel as though I’ve def­i­nite­ly dri­ven off the reg­u­lar high­way and am now offi­cial­ly in unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry; my life at 65 cer­tain­ly does­n’t look like my mom’s life did at this age, or my dad’s. It’s dif­fer­ent in many ways from the lives most of my friends have cre­at­ed, or those my sis­ter and broth­ers are liv­ing. I’m still work­ing, build­ing the busi­ness I start­ed almost thir­ty years ago — but my role is chang­ing in the com­pa­ny, as is the kind of work I want to do. I find myself more polit­i­cal­ly active than I’ve ever been.  My mar­riage is amaz­ing — and does­n’t feel any­thing like what I expect­ed would be hap­pen­ing at this point in my life. My rela­tion­ships with my kids and grand­kids are rich and fun for all of us — but not what I think of as grand­moth­er­ly. Every day I find myself think­ing some ver­sion of, Is this OK? I don’t see oth­ers my age doing/feeling/thinking this. OR Wow, this is very dif­fer­ent from how my life was just a few years ago…what’s hap­pen­ing?  And then I just have to check in with whether “this”, what­ev­er it is, seems to be sup­port­ing me in cre­at­ing the kind of life, rela­tion­ships and results I want.  And if so, I just have to take a deep breath and…keep driving.

I’d love to hear about your adven­tures in men­tal off-road­ing, too.… 

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