Choosing Between Kitten Videos and Greatness
NEXT:THENEWRETIREMENT | ESSAY
Choosing Between Kitten Videos and
Tackling the world's biggest problems in later life could mean rethinking a priority or two
By Kathleen A. Hughes
Dec. 7, 2012 1031 a.m. ET
I have to confess that I just spent 10 minutes on Facebook watching videos posted by friends: Dog hops on bike. Kitten wakes up kitten. Cat tries to jump in box. Misses. Ha. Ha.
Here's the problem: As you hit middle age, you increasingly feel that time is running out. If you're ever going to write the Great American Novel or find some way to truly make a difference in the world, the time is now. Before dementia, or just plain weariness, sets in.
And clearly, spending time on Facebook—reading a post about what your friend just ate for breakfast (cantaloupe mixed with bacon)—won't help you save the world.
The question of what to do with the rest of my life has been weighing on me since our daughter left for college in August, making us empty-nesters.
For the past two decades, after leaving The Wall Street Journal's newsroom in Los Angeles, I have been a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer, in that order. "When you're a stay-at- home mother, your significance doesn't really extend beyond the walls of your house," my friend once complained. Many would argue that, but my friend's comment stuck with me.
I'm very proud of my kids, but that's 21 years down. Now what? I'm 56. I could, in theory, try to do anything. But I want it to be...significant. I've even created an ever-expanding folder labeled "The World's Biggest Problems."
In short, how does one go from a life of normalcy to one of greatness? Preferably in one easy leap?
"It's one of the indications that one is in the second half of life—one is aware of slipping through the hourglass," says James Hollis, a Jungian analyst I called in Houston and the author of "Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life."
In a negative way, he says, it can produce desperation. In a positive way, it can lead to a different set of choices: "How am I spending my energy? Does this feed my soul, or is it a waste of time and someone else's unfinished business?"
Humor and Drive
My own starting point on the greatness question was very much rooted in my conflicted family history. There was a sharp split between the two sides of my family. My father's side was hard hit by the Depression and mostly focused on family life and daily survival.
"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," wrote Henry David Thoreau—and that was my grandfather's favorite quote. He worked in truck leasing but spent many years in bed due to a debilitating pain in his left side.
His wife, who never attended college, was very loving and baked unparalleled bunny-shaped cakes covered in coconut, with jelly beans for eyes. But taking care of my grandfather wore her down, and she tried twice to take her own life.
As a child, visiting their small brick house in Pennsylvania and watching everyone drink and chew the fat gave me whatever Irish sense of humor I have and a love of storytelling.
Then there was my mother's mission-driven side of the family. Daily life seemed incidental. My grandmother and great-grandmother wrote the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, a widely used personality-type test. My mother wrote more than 40 textbooks for reading and math programs.
All three women worked with a single-minded determination I have never seen in anyone else. My grandmother hoped the MBTI, based on Carl Jung's theory of personality types, would give people a greater appreciation of individual differences. She once told me she hoped it would contribute to world peace and perhaps save the world from another Hitler.
I rarely saw her shop, cook or entertain. We ate a lot of Swanson's frozen dinners. My grandmother seemed to have one and only one goal. And she worked around the clock, sitting in an overstuffed chair in the corner of her living room in Swarthmore, Pa.
Somehow, my goal in life, starting in high school, became fairly simple: to write and make people laugh. I covered commodities and the savings-and-loan industry for this paper in the 1980s but, whenever possible, digressed into lighter stories.
As I began to prepare for the empty nest, my first tack was to return to writing humor. Motherhood, at least as I approached it, involves putting your sense of self in the deep freeze. In writing again, I started to hear my own voice thaw out. I wrote about, among other subjects, what it's like to be married to a cardiac surgeon who has taken up karaoke singing.
But I also kept adding ideas to my "Biggest Problems" folder, feeling that I needed to aim higher.
It was my call to Mr. Hollis, the Jungian analyst, that changed my thinking.
"Off the record," he said, after listening to the story of the mission-drive side of my family, "that could really be a significant burden. You shouldn't feel you have to live up to family traditions and expectations. You really need to examine that and ask, 'What is best for me?' Your life is meant to be a different one." (He later gave me permission to quote him.)
Just as I was revising my thinking along those lines, daily life intervened in a big way. My two children arrived at my tiny one-room apartment in New York to camp out before leaving for college, making it difficult to work. I kept kicking them out, saying I had to finish my story on finding greater meaning in the second half of life.
Then my 82-year-old father announced that he had suffered a major investment loss due to the purchase of a "flexible premium adjustable variable life insurance policy." That was a shock. Since then, my brother and I have spent a lot of our time trying to figure out what went wrong.
And I kept trying to finish this story. My editor said my first draft rambled. Then he killed my very long story on finding meaning in the second half of life. Now it's this very short essay.
"Not only am I not becoming great, I don't even have time to write this story about greatness," I thought. "It's ironic."
And that's how it goes for many of us. Although I have finally concluded that perhaps taking the best possible care of the people around us really is greatness.
Maybe one day I'll get to write about women's inheritance rights in developing countries, something I'm deeply curious about.
But in the meantime, no more kitten videos.
Ms. Hughes is a writer in California and New York.
Copyright © 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
To order presentation ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers visit https://www.djreprints.com.