Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Middle age: learning acceptance and contentment

To me a lot of what middle age is about - or perhaps life in general - is accepting your life as it is, and finding a place of contentment, an angle of repose.

We often have ideas about how our life should be going, but that's not the way it's going, and we fight and fight and fight. But at some point we are taken down, usually by some bodily failure (which is where middle age comes in) and we are forced to let go and accept. I suspect that this is the seed of wisdom.

This is also the message I see regularly in Indian scriptures. Krishna says "it is better to live your own dharma poorly than someone else's well". The great statements of Vedanta say "All this is God" and "Nothing but God exists." To me, one aspect of this teaching is that if I am seeing my life as "not good enough" or not where I want to be, then this implies I am not seeing God in my life.

Sometimes this is very hard to accept.

Over the last three weeks I went through a debilitating flu and had to go through a root canal (partially caused by grinding my teeth). I took these as signs of a life out of balance and did some self-inquiry.

First of all, I was exhausted, and secondly I was stressed. This much was obvious. Next question was why.

I have just started a new job after being laid off by Sun. I didn't really expect to make this change, and I don't think I had fully accepted the change. At Sun I was working with some serious rock stars of the industry, and doing some "cool stuff" in open source. In my new job, it's a great team and fun work, but I have been unhappy because (to me) it just wasn't that "cool."

I have also been watching all this interesting stuff going on in the web tier - distributed data stores like CouchDB, rich client development using Javascript/HTML5, Flex and JavaFX, potentials for peer-to-peer collaboration, etc. But none of this has anything to do with my day job.

So I started trying to do this stuff on the side. Keep in mind I'm a father of 2 young kids, and I also just took away two hours from my day for commute time. So I was squeeezing this into late nights and early mornings. Thus the exhaustion. And the grinding teeth: I was pushing and pushing myself, I didn't want to let it go and just do my day job - that would be admitting surrender.

But after these illnesses and further thought and I saw that (a) this wasn't a maintainable lifestyle and (b) I was being proud and egotistical. My day job was "below me" and I was meant for "greater things." Hints of Raskolnikov. I wasn't accepting my life as it is.

So with a sigh I saw it was time to let go. No more late nights trying to hack Javascript and CouchDB. Although part of me feels like I'm letting go the chance to ride this wave, I also have to admit I've been much happier and less stressed since this decision.

It's such a fascinating process. This wasn't the first time I've gone through it, and I doubt it's the last.


Anonymous said...

Sure, you get more health problems as you age, but the pressure to "settle", and accept what you can get from life rather than what you dreamed of is an eternal and never-ending struggle of life that faces everyone of every age.

You had a stroke of good fortune to have such an exciting position at Sun that you were good at and that you appreciated, and now you have a more regular software job just like everyone else.

I'm in a similar situation. I had a super-exciting job at a company that went through a wildly succesful run before closing. With my next job, I was surprised that my salary went up and my work load went down. But on the downside, I do very menial work, I'm not appreciated or respected, I'm not allowed to work on any of the problems in software that interest me, I have zero say in technology decisions and software design, and I can be replaced at the blink of an eye.

Putting time into exciting after-hours hobby projects is hard. And by "hard", I mean somewhere between "requiring effort, persistence, and passion" and "completely unrealistic and impossible".

It sounds like you definitely need a break from pushing yourself on amibitious after hours projects. But I wouldn't abandon them either. Maybe after taking some time to adjustment and relax, you can return to them refreshed and happy.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the good wishes and great perspective. I agree we shouldn't give up our dreams, but I also need to be conscious of what actually is reasonable and best for me.

I don't think it's so much about "settling for" as learning how to be content. It's a subtle difference. Perhaps I'll have an opportunity to work on this "cool stuff", but it has to happen in its own way and its own time, rather than me pushing to make it happen. It's the pushing that's the problem and which causes the stress and exhaustion.

In terms of my day job, I'm finding that since I've accepted my position more wholly, I am more engaged and creative. It's when I'm always "looking elsewhere" that I am grumpy and dissatisfied with my job. Hm, makes me think of marriage, too - very similar dynamics.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're feeling better, bro. You'll always be special and wonderful no matter what you "do". Much love, Elizabeth