I started my midlife crisis early, and since I started early, I've been worrying about things I haven't achieved and may never achieve because time is running out. As I re-examine my life during this crisis, I recall that I have been accused of being an "underachiever." I remember purposely flunking the eighth-grade math test because I didn't want to go into that scary big building up the hill called high school. I can never forget the final SAT test I took, where after becoming so jaded from taking the PSAT's and its many courses that I spent my time filling out circles with my number-two pencil to create happy face designs on the answer sheet. My mother was a publisher, and my father was a journalist, and I still write run-on sentences. (Sorry mom. Sorry dad. I won't do it anymore I promise.)
I am a grown woman now with my own under-achieving sons who'd rather collect NFL cards than study their match assignments from the schools "talented and gifted" program (TAG for short — tag you're it?). I went to graduate school (finally) to become a social worker at the age of 38. I write brilliant research papers and federal grants while making bologna sandwiches for the boys with happy faces drizzled out in mustard (it makes them laugh).
But during my second year — after working in a small non-profit, answering the help-line, and running the clothes drive — I switched to policy and administration. Higher salary, more prestige, less women in the field. No under achiever was I. I graduated with a 3.9. (What? no 4.0? Sorry, mom, sorry dad. I won't do it again. I promise.) Now poised to take the fast track in a career suiting my intellect, I miss goofing around. I miss making happy faces on official looking documents. Well, I only did it once, for old times sake. (Sorry, Mr. Boss. I won't do it again. I promise.)
Then I saw an article in a magazine promising how to live life to your fullest potential. It had a quiz (I love taking magazine quizzes). There was an exercise called "The Six Months to Live Fantasy." I took it, and not only was it an eye-opener, I came to the conclusion that perhaps I am better off NOT living up to my fullest potential. The question is simply: What would you do if you were told you had only six months left to live?
Here is what I wrote:
"I'm going to die in six months. Once I get through the classic “shock, anger, denial, acceptance” phase, I know now that nothing else is more important in the world except that I am dying. I don't have to worry about debt; I won't be here to pay if off. On the other hand, I don't need material things because let’s face it — you can't take them with you. Before my approaching death, I worried about AIDS, world hunger, pollution. If I were to live, there might be something I could do even if in a small way to help heal the world’s problems. But now I don't care because I, too, am dying. The knowledge of my death makes me selfish.
Being what I consider a caring person, I have always been concerned about others. Not now. Their struggles are nothing compared to mine. In fact, I have little, if no, compassion for my fellow human beings. What problem could be more paramount than mine, facing my own death? I would like to think of myself as a heroine, selflessly thinking of others right down to my last breath, but I know this is not so. I am consumed with my own pain. I want to write my novel, run-on sentences and all. (Will someone publish this just because I am dying?) I spend all my time at the computer and ignore my boys’ pleas for me to draw silly happy faces on their math homework. I am living only for the moment."
I was totally honest with myself when I wrote that answer. But what was this exercise trying to prove? I read on. The book showed other people's examples of what they would do with their last six months: "I would travel," "I would learn a foreign language," and "I would learn to play the piano." Go ahead. Take this quiz. See what you really write. Ask your friends. I did and what they wrote wasn't much different than what I wrote.
But the point, the article says, is that this exercise forces you to focus on what you are not doing that you would like to be doing. And if you aren't, then you're not living up to your fullest potential by ignoring these desires.
I get it now. Yet it occurs to me that all these desires are totally selfish. Is this what living up to our fullest potential amounts to? Perhaps I've used bad examples and surely learning to play the piano isn't a bad thing, but if in living up to my fullest potential means that I stop caring about others and concentrate only on what I want than it seems to me that I am a better person for NOT living up to my fullest potential. I may never write that novel or learn to play the piano if I am too busy collecting canned goods for the world hunger drive. But which would I rather be remembered for? Where would my time best be spent in helping to contribute to the world in which I am also a part of?
I am classified as being in the "me" generation. My time on earth is short, and it is up to me, as it is for everyone else to decide on how we want to live that life. The 40-hour work week is 60 hours, and the money earned doesn't get us that far. We are a busy generation with careers and bills to pay and finding time to draw happy faces on our children's sandwiches. But we have not learned to appreciate what we do have and to be satisfied with ourselves as WE ARE TODAY without worrying what we could have been.
In not appreciating our own lives, we can become blind to the needs of others, some who have even less than we do. We may not learn Latin, or see the Eiffel Tower, but we can be content with what we've done,. In striving to reach our fullest potential we, at the very least, become self-absorbed we turn our backs on others or at the worst trample on people who get in our way. We forget that we are all here together and that other people can be our greatest joy and comfort. In realizing this, I have reached my fullest potential. And I never learned to play the piano.