Monday, October 02, 2023

"Toss Up The Chips And See Where They Land"

The midlife crisis is no doubt different for everyone, but at some level, it comes down to people of a certain age looking around and asking themselves, to borrow from the Talking Heads, "My god, what have I done?" The middle class stereotype is to then leave partners, jobs, or towns, and to restart with a new car, new hairstyle, and, a whole new purpose, or at least to begin the search for a whole new purpose.

I get it. Who among us hasn't, at least briefly, fantasized about chucking it all for a life, say, in a tropical paradise where living can be pared down to its essentials? To live, if not a life of leisure, at least one in which leisure plays a more central role; where there is time and space to paint, to dance, to read and write novels; where we get up each morning, fully rested, doing so eagerly because there is no "to do" list, but rather a sweep of time in which to engage curiosity, passion, novelty, and connection, moment-by-moment.

It's probably good that most of us don't go into full "crisis" mode each time we find ourselves in this place, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take this urge seriously. After all, we know that humans are at their best when living meaningful lives and these dreams are calling us to consider "My god, what have I done?" It doesn't mean to chuck it all . . . but it might.

I've never known or heard of a very young child suffering from this kind of crisis of purpose. That's probably because they are already living lives in which curiosity, passion, novelty, and connection drive their waking moments. They would never think to ask themselves "Well, how did I get here?" or "Where am I going?" Yes, there are adults who feel they must force purpose upon them, giving them things to learn and tasks to perform "for their own good," but most of us know that the obligations will start piling up soon enough with no help from us as choices are made and events are thrust upon them. 

Before they know it, they will have jobs and families and homes, the standard stuff of purpose, good things, important things choc-a-block with meaning, but that's also typically where the urge first makes itself known, in flashes and hints. We may love our lives, but we're really looking forward to leaving the baby with the in-laws for a week's holiday. We're motivated by our job, but it leaves us so exhausted that we don't have anything left for the other things we love like playing soccer or piano or writing in our journals. We tend to dismiss those moments of mini-crisis as nothing more than reactions to stress, putting them behind us in the rush and crush of day-to-day life.

But they keep coming back, these questions "Well, how did I get here?" and "Where am I going?" There has to be more. The longer we ignore those questions, the more urgent they become. If we avoid them long enough, they become a crisis. 

The Greek work for leisure, skhole, is the root for the English word "school." In other words, as the ancients saw it, it's only when we are at our leisure that we have the time to muse, explore, think, and study, not according to some curriculum, but according to curiosity, passion, novelty, and connection. It's only when we are at leisure that we are able to fully consider these questions of purpose. It's only when we are free to pursue our curiosity and passion, to embrace novelty, and connect with others that we feel most alive. It's more than simply shedding obligations, although that is essential to finding oneself in a state of leisure. It is about finding something to do that makes us come alive, whether or not it earns money, whether or not it has any connection to your current mode of life. Shouldn't that be the purpose of education?

Unfortunately, the modern world has left many of us incapable of true leisure. We take our computers with us on holiday. We're always available by phone or email or social media. We fill our calendar with exercise or networking or classes, exactly the kind of goal-oriented activities that leave us feeling like we're running, running, running without getting anywhere. True leisure (or "true school") is time we spend doing things, anything, just for the pleasure of it. At our play-based preschool, we see children fully immersed in their activities, not because it will make them better or smarter (although it will), not because they will advance themselves along some path (although it will), but because they are curious or passionate, because what they are doing is new and different, because it connects them to their world in ways that bring them joy and surprises them with delight.

The things that once gave us this joy may no longer satisfy our need for purpose. That's perfectly natural. It's not a failure to want something more or new. As Walt Whitman proclaims, "I am large, I contain multitudes." Life tends to entrap us, repressing the multitudes. Our choices combine with the accidents of life to narrow things down, no matter how eagerly we started out. When the curiosity, passion and novelty fade, we're left without that sense of deep purpose. That's when leisure tends to call out to us. We would be well served to heed it. I know too many people who simply sigh, and say, "Wouldn't that be nice?" But when we don't listen, we prepare the soil for anxiety, depression, and, ultimately, crisis.

I once shared a ride to the airport with a woman who had been married to her husband for over 60 years. She told me that their secret was that at least every five years they take a month, "go off into the woods," and consider whether or not their marriage had run its course. Divorce was always an option, she told me, "but, so far, we've decided against it." The result, however, is that they regularly renewed their sense of purpose, both individually and together. They had lived all over the world -- sometimes together, sometimes apart -- raised their children by a variety of means, and pursued dozens of careers between them. She was, as we spoke, on her way to meet her husband in order to vanish into the woods where, at 82 she was looking forward to having the leisure to muse and think and connect, and then to, as she put it, "toss up the chips and see where they land."


"This inspiring book is essential reading for every family choosing a preschool, every teacher working with young children, and every citizen who wonders how we can raise children who will make the world a better place." ~Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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