” ‘If you’re not dead yet, you’re not done yet.’ This is a line my mother said to me the other day, while she was issuing a gentle warning not to fall into the trap of letting your life get smaller as you get older…No. She begs to differ. As you get older, there is no more time to be careful, and no more REASON to be careful…this is the time to seize as much life and joy and adventure and learning and novelty as you possibly can…” — Elizabeth Gilbert
A couple of years ago, having just entered my 50s, I was speaking with a colleague at work about my plans to make a change in my life and career. She said, “We’re the same age, aren’t we? And you still have this desire to change? At this point in life, I just want to make it through the days without too much thought.”
I remember, in my hubris, feeling sorry for her. After all, 50 was the new 30 – everyone was saying it. And I was feeling…not young, exactly, but an internal urgency that masqueraded as youthful energy. So I went off on my quest to change my life, and a lot of things happened.
Did you learn the tale of Icarus when you were younger? Icarus and his father, Daedalus, attempted to escape captivity on the island of Crete by flying away on wings Daedalus had constructed of feathers and beeswax. He warned his son, Icarus, not to fly too high, or the heat of the sun would melt the wax holding his wings together. But Icarus, in his pride at his father’s invention and his new ability to fly, did not heed the warning. As he flew closer and closer to the sun, the wax on his wings melted, causing the feathers to drift away. Soon, Icarus realized he was flapping his bare arms, and plunged into the sea.
This tale was used to teach us about “hubris”, to the ancient Greeks meaning excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods. These days, without the gods to blame for everything, we think of it as the arrogant, self-confident pride that comes before a fall.
When I used the term “hubris” to describe my attitude toward my colleague, I wasn’t referring to the desire and urgency I felt to change my life. I was referring to my boastful attitude that I would never feel as uninspired as I thought she was; I would never be so complacent, so tired, so ready to lay down the reins.
A year ago this week, I started a new job in Woodbury, MN. I was in that job until the first of June – and it was the most hellish two months of my life. After two weeks in that crucible, I was hanging on by my fingernails. When my coworker, Jody, called me to quit without further notice, I told her in no uncertain terms that it was a really crappy thing to do. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My new job wants me to start right away.” The truth was, she had no new job. The following day, she killed herself. Jody’s death was not something I could truly take in at the time – there wasn’t room in the crazed hours of that life to feel anything other than exhausted.
In the year since, I have been truly graced with blessings – and I am grateful beyond the words to describe it. But I have also had difficulty shaking off the exhaustion; I find myself, at times, just wanting to get through the days without too much thought. Today, inexplicably, I am finally filled with grief over Jody’s lonely death. I understand, now, what I didn’t three years ago as I sat in my colleague’s office: sometimes, it is enough to get through the day.
Sometimes it is enough – but not forever, at least not for me. Tomorrow, or someday soon, an internal urgency will prompt me into forward motion. And if it doesn’t happen on its own I will seek it out, because I don’t believe in letting my life grow smaller as I grow older. But I’ve also learned the truth about hubris: it isn’t about flying too high, its about thinking everyone else is below you. We will all move forward in our own ways and at our own paces. I’ve been learning to be less judgmental about that, and more compassionate about the ebb and flow of people’s energy. As I extend that compassion to others, I’m also learning to let some of it flow back toward myself.
I’m not dead yet, which means I’m not done yet.