In the quiet moments of this holiday time, it can be helpful to stand back and take a look at what’s important (and not so important) in your life. In fact, this sort of self-reflection can and should be a part of your everyday life, especially after experiencing a crisis or difficulty. We should to recommit to, and maybe even restructure what means the most to us. It doesn’t happen automatically, and often takes time and conscious effort.
I got to thinking about this because a friend of mine, an active, energetic man in his 80s, was recently involved in a car collision. He was slightly injured and more than a little shaken, and his car was totally demolished. Suddenly without transportation, he lost much of his cherished independence. Family and friends helped out, but he deeply missed his daily routine.
After a few weeks of isolation and boredom, he realized that he had to recommit to his priorities. He had to ask himself if it was still important for him to live his life as he had previously, and if so, then what was he going to do about it. By the time he got over the initial trauma, he had made the crucial decision to not withdraw from the world, to confront the situation, find a new car, and bring his favorite pleasures back into his life.
There are issues uniquely associated with aging, such as deciding at what point you’re not able to do all the things you used to take for granted. But the issue of ‘recalibrating’ priorities applies to all of us, no matter what our circumstances. Crisis doesn’t have to be a negative event. I’ve written about how people choose to retire and live an easier life, and then experience an emotional upheaval because they don’t know what to do with their days. Another example of this is a newly graduated college student who experiences a crisis about ‘where to go from here.’
A lot of the problem stems from not having a clear idea of what to do with your life, which naturally results in not always knowing what to do with your days. The elderly man in my example knows that he wants to live his life independently. He wants to avoid assisted living, and he wants to drive. Because he’s basically healthy and alert, the issue of knowing what to do is simple common sense. But, when it comes down to the everyday decisions of how to spend his days, especially after his recent trauma, practical choices must be made. Should he live as a shut-in, skulking around with the blinds closed and feeling sorry for himself as people deliver his groceries? Or should he demand more, reestablish his routines, and drive back out into the world? His overall goal of independence was unchanged by the temporary upheaval, and by refocusing his priorities, he figured out how he wanted to spend his day-to-day existence. All that was left was to make it happen.
A similar thing can take place with our hypothetical college graduate. He or she has quite literally spent his or her entire life in school. It provided structure and routine. It determined how days were spent. Suddenly (as the graduate hears over and over again), ‘You have your whole life ahead of you!’ But, lacking that structure and routine, tomorrow, next month and next year can become difficult to face.
My point is this: Making decisions requires that you first know what your priorities are. Regular readers of this column know that I urge people to ‘introspect’ by having a serious conversation with themselves about what they want and what makes them happy. This introspection is vital to identifying and shaping our priorities.
Will you immediately get what you want? Maybe not. Possibly our graduate will have to do something for a while that he doesn’t quite want to do. Maybe my senior friend will have to rely on grocery deliveries for a few more weeks until he finds a car he likes. But if the priorities remain firm and constant, life will flow steadily in the right direction. From a psychological point of view, any alternative will almost certainly result in anxiety and stress.
My experience counseling people over the years has proven again and again that individuals who know what they want are happier than those who don’t. Nobody knows you better than you do, and nobody can (or should) make life decisions for you. The saying ‘Freedom requires responsibility’ might be even better stated: ‘Having choices means being responsible for knowing what you want.’ We’re all responsible for evaluating what we want and how we intend to go about getting it. The self-confidence it brings is well worth the effort it takes.