Magazine article USA TODAY

Realizing It's Too Late

Magazine article USA TODAY

Realizing It's Too Late

Article excerpt

IT IS A TRUTH NEARLY universally denied--for at least the past 40 year--at one cannot have everything one wants, and certainly not in the order in which desired. This is, of course, heresy. I recall very clearly being told by teachers in elementary school, and celebrities of various stripes exhorting us via the media, that we could do anything, be anything, have it all, if only we wanted it badly enough. Being an underweight, plain asthmatic with too-thick glasses and too-high grades, I wanted very badly to not be beaten up at recess, but even the force of will that drove me through Look Homeward Angel before I was a teenager was insufficient to be spared pummeling. I had a vague sense that this message did not jive with the teacher who told me that girls were not supposed to do better than boys at math, but enough sense to figure that challenging any of this would get about the same level of response as from my mother when, at about age seven, I suggested the parable of the Prodigal Son smacked of unfairness. Silence would have been golden.

Two generations later, we still are burdening far too many young people with this gibberish, despite the appalling fallout among their parents, or those old enough to be their parents. We cannot have it all, and certainly we cannot have even what little we may want in whatever order we prefer.

From a therapist's perspective, it is sad. When the wall of reality is hit at 39, or even older, there are biological and psychological facts at play that mean that earlier choices were not just passing fancies and errors. There is not a perpetual reset button on life; you cannot reboot the system endlessly. Those early choices bear permanent effects, and those effects corral the options available. It is not an exaggeration to call the adjustment to reality a grieving process.

Middle-aged adults who pursued their parents' goals realize that the career they have never has, and never will, fit their disposition or talents. They would like to change tracks, but some tracks will be next to impossible. The training for some professions, such as the medical fields, requires not only tremendous time and willpower, but the capacity to memorize vast quantities of data. This is called fluid intelligence. It tends to peak and then slowly decline starting around age 40, although the first bits of this reduced ability to remember facts and figures quickly often is camouflaged by the increase in crystal, or analytic intelligence.

Crystal intelligence increases and remains at a plateau into the 60s and may continue very effectively until senescence. This is a good reason to send White House press secretary Jay Carney to the store with a verbal list of groceries, or want him on your team for Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy, but you had better ask diplomat Henry Kissinger to explain the implications of recent events involving the Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic Christians on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The brilliant woman who sailed through nursing school to become an ARNP in her late 20s can find that pursuing her real dream--to be a physician--an entirely different matter 20-odd years later. It may not be impossible, but the challenge of memorization and 24-hour-plus residential shifts are substantial for anyone: more for someone in midlife than in young adulthood. …

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