Stuck in the Middle, Part 3

“We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.”

–Blaise Pascal

Here we go again Karen said to no one in particular.  Three years of pleading, cajoling and yes, threatening her eternally suborn parents to get some outside help and where was she?  Right where she started, which was essentially nowhere.  Her father fell again last night but insists it was “no big deal.”  Not really a fall he said, more a slip while cleaning up in the kitchen.  No harm, no foul.

And that’s the pattern of how Karen’s parents reported these all too frequent incidents that coincided with a steady downturn in their health.  It was always no big deal, we’re fine and don’t worry about us.  Of course her mother’s macular degeneration and severe osteoporosis were not a factor in their struggle to live independently.  Neither was her father’s chronic vertigo, systemic arthritis and frailty a factor in his falls  We’re just getting old they often joked.  There was no need to overreact and bring in the troops.  Maybe later, they said, when things took a turn for the worse.  Maybe then.

Angry and exhausted, Karen found herself stuck in an ongoing, no-win situation. She had been relegated to the sidelines of her parent’s final years to wait for a call, text or knock on the door that informed her that  something serious had happened.  Then and only then will she be allowed to spring into action and bring in reinforcements to move one or both of them somewhere else.  This was crazy.  How did this decision make any sense given the obvious risks her parents continued to ignore?

Of course it doesn’t and therein lies the source of much of the suffering of middle age.  The emergence and persistence of these unsolvable, no-win situations across all of life’s domains bring with them a heavy burden that can rarely be attenuated in the best of circumstances.

Of course, I speaking about dilemmas, those baffling entities that have the power to topple the serenity and sanity of even the most well prepared and resilient mid-life adult.  This is why failure to appreciate and respect the nature of dilemmas sets up middle age adults for physical, mental and spiritual suffering they never see coming.  And here’s why they are so easily blindsided.

The story of the first half of life is all about gains and growth, goals built on positive emotions, a clear purpose and robust creativity.  And they are driven to completion by well-polished problem solving skills, an effective and respected process for eliminating uncertainty.

Questions about education, career choices, and life partners are all problems in search of the right solution.  After assessing each problem and vetting various options you settle on a college, career path or life partner.  While there are certainly unknowns that could cause you to rethink or revise these choices, for the most part you have chosen an answer that solves the problem and eliminates the uncertainty for the foreseeable future.  Years of schooling in problem solving skills has proven to be a good match for the problem dominated landscape of the first half.  But as the second half unfolds, problem solving turns out not to be enough.

That’s because the second half of life replaces the familiar problem dominated terrain of the first half of life with an unfamiliar one dotted with vexing dilemmas.  This radical and unexpected shift in the nature of life’s challenges provokes an understandable crisis for middle-life travelers  First, they realize dilemmas cannot be solved like typical problems.  At best they can be managed with some type of accommodation. Second, they realize dilemmas don’t suddenly go away on their own.  At best they must be managed 24/7 with no real end in sight.  Bottom line, it is this sustained engagement with uncertainty and the lack of preparation to manage dilemmas that makes them so toxic for middle age adults.

And this would be true even if dilemmas conveniently arrived one at a time.  But of course they don’t.  They appear in clusters, bursting on to the scene and overwhelming the efforts of any one who tries to keep up with them.  And Karen’s middle-life world was no different.  While her dilemma regrading her aging parent’s refusal to accept any form of outside help ranked near the top of her list of things that were driving her crazy, it was by no means the only dilemma she was facing.  There were other, equally complicated ones, that had embedded themselves in her life threatening her best efforts to keep everything together.  Spoiler alert: she was not keeping everything together.

In the next installment of Stuck in the Middle, we will look at the inventory of dilemmas in Karen’s life including those that involve relationships, career and health.  Despite their no-win nature, we will discover how decoding their structure provides important clues about which coping strategies are best suited for managing them.  It will also become apparent that for most adults successful navigation of the middle crossing requires some ability to identify, decode and come to terms with dilemmas.  And this core competency proves to be an powerful strategy for protecting and sustaining quality of life, but it won’t be easy…


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