Yesterday we warmed up slowly, and agreed that communication is hard enough without everybody always changing all the time. But we all do change all the time—and so does our relationship to everything.
The union leader whose political opinions you once found formative retires, and before long you regard him as an out-of-touch crank. You go to work for a narcissist, and a foundation of fifty years of self esteem crumbles before the second pay period. For years, you were referred to as "the world's youngest curmudgeon," and then one day you realize nobody calls you that anymore, because you unknowingly transitioned from an angry young man to a grumpy old man.
We're all much more vulnerable to changes in circumstances than we (naturally) want to acknowledge.
Even subtle ones—and even inevitable ones.
I once had a conversation on the deck of a sailboat with a 50-something seventh-grade English teacher who told me he was in his third entirely separate social role at the school.
When he was in his twenties and early thirties, the students regarded him as a big brother, with whom they cooperated out of admiration. Then one day in his mid-30s, he yelled at a class and saw to his surprise that they were terrified.
"I realized I was their father now," he said. And he had to adjust his approach accordingly. And through his forties and early fifties he was their father.
Then one day—and this had happened not long before he and I had this conversation—he yelled at a class in his thunderous dad voice, and detected pity on their faces. "Uh oh," was how he read their look. "Gramps is losing it." And so he found himself in the midst of adjusting to a wholly new basis of influence.
In one way or another—and in many areas of our lives—we all have to make the adjustment from child actor to supporting actor to leading man to lovable character actor.
A friend of mine with a big personality used to warn me: "Murr, guys like us have gotta be careful, because we can get old and become caricatures of ourselves." No. We become caricatures of ourselves when our natural and useful relationship with the world changes and we go on being H.S. Thompson when it's long past time to start moving toward E.B. White.
For those who pull off all the required athletic maneuvers, there ougtta be a hall of fame. For those who don't—they should be forgiven. Life is hard enough by the day. Keeping up with it by the decade—this is a hell of a lot to ask.
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