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  • Paul D. Wilke

Choosing the Right Trade-offs in Life: A Dilemma


This is not you

Perhaps this is a worthless bit of common sense, but any personal freedom is going to come with some compromises. That seems obvious, but popular culture will tell you that everything is possible, if only you believe in it enough. Compromise in the guise of duties and responsibilities is the counter-balancing force to the unrestrained pursuit of purely selfish goals. That pursuit always risks letting the ego rampage like an angry little god across our social landscapes. Implied in any discussion about individual freedoms should be an understanding of the costs. We have a responsibility to ourselves to recognize and weigh those costs, not only for ourselves but for the people in our lives.

Below are some off-the-top-of-my-head archetypes of how our freedom to choose certain ways of living comes with a corresponding set of chains. We may be free to do this, but we are not free to do that.

For example...

I know people who want freedom from professional responsibility. The Eternal Child. Peter Pan. Committing to a career would constrain their precious personal freedom, or so they believe, making them just another brick in the wall. In certain respects, they are right. The path to financial success for most of us is paved by conformity, strategic reticence, and compromising our immediate wants for the delayed gratifications of financial stability. Trust me, I didn't prosper for 25-years in the Army by being a maverick. But Peter Pan doesn't want to wear the shackles of an office dweller, believing (rightly, I'd argue) that to sit in an office, day after day, week after week, year after year, is to slowly feed the system your soul, one snack-sized bite at a time.

In the end, the part of you that was you and no one else withers, leaving behind little more than an eggshell white homunculus adapted to blend seamlessly into the cubicle ecosystem. Peter Pans loathe such a fate, and well they should. I'll confess as well that they are the most fun to hang out with. No stilted talk about work, or the weather, or other safe blah blah blah banalities. They're at least trying to break out, even if they are almost certainly doomed to fail. So, okay, fine, the Peter Pans avoid the fate of the gray-drab working class, but the cost is usually poverty, insecurity, and mild contempt from the rest of society.

For the vast majority of us, working a full-time job, building a career, and trying to carve a little bit of personal sanctuary are as good as it gets. And, remember, Peter Pan eventually grows old. Then what? When we're young, we think we can live our lives on our own terms; as we get older, we realize that's bullshit. That moment of realization must be secretly terrifying for a Peter Pan with graying hair and aching knees.

There are no happy endings here, so let's move along.

Other people become little more than their jobs, like worker ants. In return, they get to live a charming middle-class lifestyle, at least in appearance; a lovely house, two cars, some status, maybe a pile of debt. Those long hours and laser-focused ambitions may get one up the corporate ladder, but at what cost?

The most professionally dedicated people I know are also the least interesting. I struggle to imagine what actually is going on inside those heads other than working through the day's agenda. These folks are impressive in their element. At some point, however, they traded away any individuality, any distinct personality so they could get the corner office and a dedicated parking spot.

Little do they know, for all that dedication and devotion to the organization, two weeks after they're gone no one will remember them. Gone and forgotten with nothing but a stupid plaque to show for it. Trust me on that: professional glory is ephemeral. These are also the people who seem to loom larger than life in their natural habitat, the office, and the staff meeting, but then shrink to almost the vanishing point in other social settings. There are no happy endings here either.

Moving on...

I know people who don't ever want children. The Eternal Teenagers (ETs). If they're lucky, they find a soulmate who feels the same. And so they gladly escape the shackles of child-rearing. Perhaps they get to travel and save more money than the rest of us. This is also a happy life, or at least that's what it looks like on social media. But freedom isn't free here either. The cost comes in the form of alienated relationships as once good friends gradually drift away to raise families. Priorities change.

You see, time spent with the kids equals time not spent sustaining old friendships. No time for that anymore. Raising a family is an integral part of most people's life arc. Those who don't go this route miss out on much, even if they gain more space to do what they want. The ETs will never admit it, but every now and then, doubts creep in as the years wear on. The path of the Self grasping for eternal youth, forever and always, with no sacrifice, no inescapable duty to others, ends in a lonely cul-de-sac by late middle age. Then what? No future and no do-overs.

Nope, not here either.

What about those who have big families? The Clan. Clans lack the freedom of movement of the Eternal Teenager, but trade that for the rich emotional experiences that family life can bring. And the frustrations. And the financial woes. And the constraints. And the chaos. Doing anything as a Clan is a major undertaking, not to mention expensive.

Life becomes centered on the home-front by necessity, a life of narrowed horizons. Yet, of all the modes of life, this one arguably ages the best. Imagine the pure joy that parents can look forward to as they get older and become grandparents. They can look back at a life well-lived while still experiencing youth vicariously through their offspring.

That's not so bad.

I know people who don't want to be tied down sexually with one partner for the rest of their lives. The Player. The Don Juan. How boring we monogamous squares are, having the same thing on the menu forever and always. If the Players are charismatic and attractive, they feast from a sexual buffet that the rest of us married folks can only dream of. Still, all that exciting sexual libertinism comes at the cost of any deeper, longer-lasting intimacy. Everything becomes a fleeting pleasure, like the orgasm they spend so much energy chasing. Alas, the climax ends up an anti-climax.

Similar to some of the other examples above, this lifestyle does not improve with age. There's nothing more pathetic than an aging Player, clinging to a cool that's long gone. Getting laid used to be so easy, the aging Player sullenly reflects, but now everything seems to come off as creepy and desperate. When beauty starts to fade, Players don't have much of an inner life to fall back on. How could they? They never did anything to cultivate it, too busy pursuing the next conquest. I don't know, maybe it's better to flame out than fade away and live through such a humiliating decline? I wouldn't know.

On the other hand, sex with the same partner for several decades ends in bland monotony. Same thing. Same routine. Same position. Saturday night or bust. Paint by numbers. Ah...mature marriage...here one finds the inevitable cemetery of passion! Yeah, I know, 'That's not true for us! We're different!' But, come on! That's bullshit! How could it not end up this way?

In the best of marriages, however, the unavoidable extinguishing of the erotic flame leaves behind not an empty void, but a comforting, simmering intimacy that remains a source of warmth as the chilly late afternoon shadows of old age close in. That counts for a lot, perhaps more than I may seem to imply here. If passion's death is guaranteed - and it most certainly is - better that the non-sexual core of the relationship is made of more sturdy material. Love can endure. Passion can't. What's left when that truth is revealed? You'll eventually find out if you haven't already. Those couples who survive this transition can end up bound in more durable ways than others who have never experienced such long-lived intimacy.

Think of these marriages like white dwarfs, the dimly glowing remnants of once-mighty stars. Though most of the fuel is burned out leaving only smoldering embers, these remnant stars nevertheless endure throughout the long interstellar night. Stars live and die, with some shining brighter and longer than others. But they all burn out someday. White dwarfs endure, though, for a very long time. Marriages that have become like white dwarfs only die with death or when one of the two wants to chase the flame of desire again. That flame, sadly, will almost never be found in a partner of many years. The fuel for that fire is gone, little more than cold ashes. It must be sought out elsewhere.

Trying to feel one more time that burning sense of passion is, of course, a fool's errand. It is, nonetheless, an understandable human response to the creeping existential dread those of us with still-churning libidos feel when we look forward and see nothing but more of the same, all the same, until the end.

Such people are tragically heroic in a way, crying out "Not yet! Not yet!" in the face of the inevitable "Too late! Too late!". You can never go home; you can never really feel the heat of that flame again, that youthful passion, not really, or not for long, anyway. But to go quietly into the sex-dead mausoleum of the decades-long marriage is an understandably horrifying proposition, especially when the body still aches for some kind of physical and emotional connection that only eros can bring.

So, what about me? Where do I fit in? I wanted the freedom to travel and learn languages, two life goals I had when I was younger. But I also wanted marriage, a small family, and a modicum of financial independence. Not rich, mind you, I'm not smart or ruthless enough to cash in. I just wanted enough money to never worry about poverty like my parents did when I was growing up. I've accomplished most of these life goals: languages, travel, and some modest financial security. I've lived in several countries and studied a few languages. Not bad, if I do say so.

My trade-off is a stressful job in one of those monochromatic offices I lambasted above. Needless to say, there is more than a little Worker Ant in me. I know my kind. Making deep and long-lasting friendships are also more difficult because we move so often. This applies, not only for me but for my wife and son who are forced to go where I go. They suffer too, spiritually, emotionally, if not materially.

So, I've made my own compromises. My furtive little bursts of expression here on this blog, safe in plain sight from the indifferent eyes of even those who know me best are merely an outlet, nothing more, before I put on my mask again and play my role in the world that made me what I am. Long ago I throttled in the crib my own idealistic dreams and settled for the more pragmatic freedoms I thought were attainable. Trade-offs. Compromises. I'm happy enough, I suppose, but could be happier, sure, if only....

So freedom is about choice, yes, but don't forget about the compromises; they can be significant, but they can also be worth it. Most of us can't have it all like Oprah Winfrey or Tom Brady (my two tongue-in-cheek archetypes for human perfection, male and female), so we make compromises in our lives to make it work the best we can.

The trick is to understand ourselves well enough to know what to strive for that will be worth the inevitable price. And there will be a price. Always. If we're doing it right, we get a balance of freedoms that are more important than the compromises that come with them. The beauty of it all is we have the freedom to pivot in life if we decide the status quo is not working out.

Ah, yes, I know, that's easier said than done, isn't it? Radical personal change is not free either, not when your own baseline is stuck in a particular setting. Popular culture would have you believe it can easily be otherwise, if only you want it bad enough. If you don't get a perfect life, it's somehow all your fault.

And let's be honest, maybe it is. Most of us as we get older become creatures of habit. We settle down, and we settle, not knowing and not believing it could ever be otherwise. Eventually, our hopes and dreams taper off into a life of mechanical rote.

Inertia has a momentum of its own, especially once our lives settle into a pattern of reciprocal obligations, as most do. It's challenging to make real changes when you've sunk costs into a particular mode of being for so long at the expense of everything else. It's even harder when others depend on you to be a certain way.

We try so hard to define ourselves that we forget how much the people in our lives define us. We end up the people everyone else wanted us to be, not the other way around. Funny how that works. That they do define us can be a good thing if we surround ourselves with the right people. The big lie is to believe we can wholly define ourselves by ourselves. No. Like it or not, our identities are the product of a never-ending dialectic between me and thee.

Change can happen, but only at great cost, and that cost only gets higher as we go through life and pile up obligations and responsibilities. But is it even worth the effort to change? We're taught to assume that change is a good in itself, but that's not necessarily true. The greater the change, the greater the cost, not only in your own life but in the lives of those close to you. Unless you are a sociopath, they have to count too.

I'm not offering any right or wrong answers here, only perspectives to consider. Sometimes good enough is good enough. Live with that. Be happy enough with that. You don't have to spend your life chasing squirrels. Or choose again, but know the price of doing so. Our mistake is to believe life will always be better, if only...

If only...those two words are the rainbows we chase until we're too old and broken to pursue them anymore.

Go or let it go.

Be or let it be.


Amen.


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