Climbing Out of the Fog

It’s impossible to plan for or even prepare for the midlife transition without doing some serious self-work. You can’t very well establish a path and direction for yourself without having at least a vague idea of where you are and where you want to go. You’ll find it even more challenging to position yourself to face the eventualities along your way, if the way itself remains obscure.

Have you ever been driving and run into the vicinity of a serious brush fire? That’s an experience you’ll want to avoid at all costs. A cloud of smoke lying across the road looks superficially just like the wispy boarders of a fog bank. It appears as innocent as a touch of morning mist. Yet, as soon as you’ve driven past its boarders, you’ll find yourself in serious trouble.

That happened to me one time, driving on the interstate near Tampa, Florida. I knew there were brush fires in the area, but I couldn’t smell anything, and didn’t give it a second thought… until, with little warning, I drove into the cloud of smoke. It was as though all the windows suddenly turned into translucent white plastic. Everything was bright white, but I could see nothing: nothing at all!

I imagined drivers panicking in the white-out, their tail lights and emergency flashers completely obliterated by the brilliant impenetrable white of the surrounding smoke. I pictured myself being flattened as I plowed blindly and helplessly into them. I started to brake, but then I imagined some hapless driver like myself, speeding along behind me, unable to see my brake lights and flattening himself into the rear end of my car. I was too afraid to slow down, and too afraid not to.

That’s not at all a bad metaphor for what happens as people (and men, in particular) approach midlife. Are there obstacles ahead? Is there something overtaking you that you can’t see? Is the road ahead straight-forward, or might there be dangerous curves? And, most frightening of all, what if it comes to sudden, abrupt, dead end?

Let me describe a similar situation for you: one that concludes quite differently than the last one. I’m a private pilot. When pilots are first licensed to fly, they are permitted to do so only under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). That means that, regardless of what else they’re doing or where they’re going, they, must always fly clear of clouds. There are strict limits on the required visibility for the VFR pilot.

A couple of years ago, I went to get my Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) rating. With this rating, I would be permitted to file a flight plan and fly it as planned regardless of the visibility. For safety reasons, all pilots practice flying in obscured (instrument) conditions with a certified flight instructor. These students are given a hood or obscured glasses (called ‘foggles’) that mimic IFR conditions. Only IFR students who have demonstrated a certain high degree of flight precision and proficiency are allowed to venture into actual IFR conditions, even with a flight instructor.

When my turn finally came to taste the real thing, it felt, at first, just like driving into that cloud of smoke in Tampa. Only this time, I was trained and practiced, I knew my precise location at all times, I could read (and trust) my instruments, and I had a flight plan that included precision landing details. Imagine how thrilled I felt that day, when I was on final approach for landing and I broke through the ceiling of cloud to see myself perfectly aligned with the end of the runway that was sitting slightly below and slightly ahead of me: exactly where it was supposed to be!

What’s the lesson here? The midlife transition never has to become a midlife crisis, so long as you’re willing to do the necessary prep work to get you to the point where you know where you want to, know how you want to get there, know what you’re going to need along the way and, most importantly, know and are ready to cope with the risks involved in your choices. It certainly means getting out of your comfort zone: exploring places inside you where you’re not used to going, sharing your secret vulnerabilities with people that you actually have to trust, and learning to use skills that you may not realize you have.

If your willing to try, and if you’re open to suggestion, you’ll find yourself breaking out of the clouds of doubt that may haunt you at this stage of life, and finding yourself aligned to achieve even those dearly-held goals that you’d long ago given up on. Midlife is meant to be just the beginning of the adventure, and not just for the other guy; it’s meant for you.