Are You Ready?by Rik Isensee
"Readers of this book should be ready to experience an engaging intimate conversation about how to live with wisdom and passion while embarked on the uncertain journey of midlife. Gay men of all ages will be enriched by Isensee's timely and eloquent synthesis of his clinical work and the firsthand accounts of then remarkably articulate men. If you are curious about life after coming out, Are You Ready? is a landmark that will serve as a reference point in your own travels. It just may redirect your life."
--Robert M. Kertzner, M.D., Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University
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Thriving at Midlife
Midlife is a reflective time that offers many benefits and challenges. Most of us probably have more influence now than at any other time in our livesin our careers, with our friends and families, and in the larger community. It's a time of life when we can reap the rewards of a lot of hard work and training. We have the self-confidence to pursue new interests as well as the maturity and wisdom to enjoy our accomplishments and relationships.
In this chapter we'll counter some misconceptions about aging in the gay community. Next we'll look at some of the positive aspects of midlife for gay men and show how these can contribute to our well-being during this transition.
Adjusting to midlife is certainly not all smooth sailing. The beginning of this passage can feel rough and tempestuous, tumbling us around and dumping us on the shore, totally disoriented. The idea is not to blame ourselves for feeling confused and demoralized at times but to see the tumult of this transformation as a developmental process. We'll look at midlife challenges in the following chapters, but having a glimpse of what it's like to emerge on the other side can help us feel more confident about embarking on this journey.
* Countering Stereotypes *
At midlife we're between youth and old age. In contrast to cultures where older men are both respected and appreciated, American culture tends to dismiss attributes and contributions that can't easily be assigned an economic value. Ouranxiety about growing older in a culture that's not very accepting of aging in general is compounded by homophobia.
Older gays have been the object of negative stereotyping both from society at large and within the gay community. The image of the lonely older man lusting after younger men is perpetuated by the right wing in an attempt to frighten and shame us into abandoning our sexual orientation. Within the gay community the stereotype of the "bitter old queen" divides generationsolder men are afraid of being seen as "chicken hawks," and younger men are wary of being sexually objectified. This negative stereotype also reinforces the belief that gay relationships are based solely on sexual attraction and that once our youth begins to fade, we are unlikely to have any real or lasting relationships.
Many gays do not buy into these beliefs, and we have evidence from various research studies that contradicts negative assumptions about growing older in the gay community. Raymond Berger, in his book Gay and Gray, cited the following findings from his own and a number of other studies:
Gay men over 45 did not differ from younger gays in most aspects of psychological adjustment, and they had more stable self-concepts. Most men over 65 reported satisfactory social and sex lives. Most of the older gay men lived with a lover, roommates, or a family member. Two fifths of the older men in one study currently lived with a lover. Gay men were no more likely than heterosexual men to seek younger partners and in fact expressed a marked preference for socializing with age peers.
Along similar lines, a recent study conducted by the Stop AIDS Project in San Francisco showed that there is considerable sexual interest between men of different age groups as well as a lot of interest between men the same ageincluding men in their 40s and 50s.
Countering negative stereotypes can help us deal more successfully with our midlife transition. Realizing that growing older actually has benefits can enable us to feel less fearful about reaching out to others from different age groups. We can increase our depth of understanding through the wisdom and experience of our elders. We can also learn from younger gays by listening to their experience coming of age in a less repressive sexual climate.
* Positive Aspects *
One of the consequences of negative stereotyping is that younger men may feel dispirited and depressed about growing older. They may figure, What's the point in having safe sex or taking care of themselves in other ways, if their image of being middle-aged is so negative? Yet it appears from the Stop AIDS study mentioned above that at least some young men, and a majority of gay men at midlife, actually have fairly positive attitudes about growing older. A large percentage of younger men said they were looking forward to it. Men in their 40s and 50s cited positive aspects such as maturity, wisdom, increased insight, being calmer, and feeling more relaxed.
It helps to counter negative expectations not only through research findings but through the words of men who have made this transition and are feeling good about it. In the section that follows, I've outlined positive qualities that I've encountered in my interviews and included a number of accounts from the men themselves. (I'll introduce each man during his first comment, and for easy reference, these descriptions are also included in the appendix.)
Positive aspects of midlife:
· Knowing what's important
· Greater tolerance for ambiguity
· Less vulnerability to grandiosity and self-deprecation
· Wisdom and reflection
· Humor and healing
By the time we've reached midlife, we have a greater perspective on our lives. The usual ups and downs of daily existence tend not to rattle us as much, simply because we've been through much of this before. Overall, there's a greater sense of equanimity.
We can see the vast changes that have taken place for gay people over the past 30 years, and that perspective enables us to appreciate our own contributions to this ongoing social revolution. Although we have a personal stake in this history, by midlife we usually have had enough experience to understand that gay liberation doesn't happen all at onceboth personal and social progress in overcoming homophobia is incremental.
Kevin (Kevin is 41 and Irish-American. He loves music and cooking. He's a long-term survivor of HIV and has a partner of many years. They don't live together, and he prefers it that way): I've developed over the years the ability to see the big picturethings and people in their context. I have a greater appreciation for history and my minute place in it. I can take the bad with the good in stride. I have more understanding and humility at this age than I did when I was younger. Experience and reflection have led me to a point where I just think about things more complexly.
Brian (Brian is 50, from an Anglo-Scottish background. He just fathered a child. He has worked for the Peace Corps, as an alternative school teacher, and as a psychotherapist): Midlife gives us the best perspective we're ever going to get on life. It's the time of life when we know a lot, we've gained some power in the world, and we can see life from horizon to horizon. We can see and hold and appreciate our whole life in a way that we can't do at the beginning or at the end. And we still have physical energy and the strength and health to enjoy it. Midlife is a very busy time, because I've accumulated all these friends and interests and desires. I still have energy, but there's a gradual realization that there's not enough time left to do everything I want.
Randy (Randy is 50 and African-American. He worked for 17 years for a large corporation and recently took a severance package to explore, travel, and figure out what he'd like to do when he gets back): At midlife I feel that I make more informed choices about what kinds of jobs and relationships I want to be in. I feel more mature; I have a track record; I know what kind of person I amwhat I'm good at and what I'm not, with fewer illusions than when I was younger. I'm much clearer about what I value. I'm also aware of limitsyou can't have it all, so choose what you can have and go for it.
By the time we reach midlife, earlier anxieties begin to fade. We have managed to survive a lot of disappointments as well as reap the benefits of decades of work and training. Even if we're still struggling with relationship issues, we've usually come out to friends and family, and experienced both disappointment and success. We generally feel much more accepting of our sexual orientation and our identity as gay men.
Steve (Steve is 44 and Asian-American. He works as a medical researcher): I have the satisfaction of achievement, what I've already accomplished. I have less anxiety and fewer inhibitions. I never thought when I was young that I could speak in public without being completely anxious, but now I do that all the time. As I feel more comfortable with myself, I'm collaborating more with others. I'm also enjoying lifeI don't have to always be productive. I don't feel the need to change as much or to push myself. I spend more on leisure time. I don't have to please everyone, because I don't care as much what other people think.
Kevin: I'm actually happier than I've ever been. I feel secure in my work, so my midlife is relatively worry-free. I like and trust myself. I feel much less vulnerable and anxious than I did when I was younger. By now I feel reasonably confident that I can do life. I've had enough difficult and anguishing experiences and survived them, so I don't feel as afraid of the world. I trust my feelings and perceptions, and I'm comfortable expressing them.
Tony (Tony is 43 and Sicilian-American. He had a lover of 14 years who died of AIDS four years ago. At 41 he went back to school to become a physician's assistant. He coparents his nine-year-old son with a lesbian couple): I have more of a sense of my own self-worth now than I used to. Through therapy and support groups, I've learned how to be honest with myself and accept myself. I'm better able to acknowledge my strong points, and I have a greater sense of fulfillment. This has grown by setting goals and achieving them, and by developing skills I didn't have as a younger person. Also, by having long-term nurturing relationships with my lover, my family, and my friends, I know others can love me over a long period of time, and this allows me to be less hard on myself.
Hal (Hal is 37, from a German and Irish background. He has worked as a chef and a carpenter, and he now runs a personal growth seminar): I feel more comfortable with who I am. There's a definite change in my level of confidence. My perspective is broader, and I have a greater acceptance of different kinds of people. I've been through enough process and change that I've learned that I just have to kick back and let it go.
At midlife we may experience changes in our flexibility. Because we have greater perspective, we're often less judgmental. Rather than becoming set in our ways, we find that self-reflection allows continued growth. As described in the following examples, we may have more "psychic" flexibility, in terms of how we relate to other people, but less physical flexibility, in terms of our need for sleep, recovery time from physical exertion (and partying!), or our desire for physical comfort.
Kevin: I'm vastly more flexible in a relationship. I used to be jealous and controlling and insecure. Now I'm not as threatened by my partner finding someone else attractive. I know the strong points and soft spots in my friends, and have learned to live with and even cherish their difficult parts. I think it's part of love to respect other people's vulnerability, and this view has only come with age.
Steve: Flexibility is a result of the crash I experienced, when all my usual structures were destroyedmy home, my health, and my usual way of working [see Chapter 2]. Now I'm more flexible with my schedule. I stay up late or go out on weekdays. I find myself letting go of certain ideals. I'm not cynical, but I feel less disappointed. I'm more understanding of public figuresof course people do dumb things, so I don't get so worked up about it. I accept people's faults more.
Antoine (Antoine is 45 and Hawaiian-Filipino. He works as an accountant and recently got involved with the same-sex marriage movement in Hawaii. His lover is 19 years older, and they've been together for 23 years): It depends. I'm more flexible about things that aren't a high priority. But if I have something that I really believe in, I can be inflexible. I won't make time for anything else. I focus more on what I want instead of being a part of someone else's plan.
Brian: I'm more understanding of diversity, more accepting, less judgmental about people's foibles. I feel less self-righteous about how others should change. I take a longer view of history and historical changes. I feel more flexible with people, but I need more regular sleep and can't stay up till 2 in the morning as easily as I used to. My daily living routine is pretty fixed, but I wonder what would happen if I had a boyfriend. I feel pretty settled in my house, for example, so if I met someone and we wanted to live together, would I be willing to move? Overall, I feel more physical rigidity, but greater psychic flexibility than when I was younger.
Andrew (Andrew is 48 and Anglo-American. He's a body worker who teaches Yoga and meditation): I feel more flexible when I can let go of stuff that's getting to me and realize it's not that important. That helps me recognize my patterns and not get caught up in them. I have a controlling personality, so I don't deal well with upheaval. I like measured change, not a big surpriseor even last-minute spontaneity, like a friend calling up and saying let's go to the beach when I've already planned out my day. I love change, variety, and spontaneity when I'm traveling. Just see what the day brings.
Knowing What's Important
In contrast to having more flexibility, many men reported also having a clearer idea of what's important to them. They're less willing to put up with chaos, lack of clarity in relationships, or uncertainty with their living situations. For many men, there's also a sense of urgencyto focus on accomplishing whatever it is that's really vital to them.
Steve: I'm more tolerant of people in some ways, but also less. I understand why they do absurd or thoughtless things, having done them myself, but I feel less tolerant in terms of putting up with unreliable behavior.
Mario (Mario is 42 and Latino. He's a dancer and choreographer who also works as a shipping clerk. His lover of ten years died three years ago): Having lived in the same place for 13 years, I know what I want in my home environment. I'm more intolerant of certain behaviorslike not paying rent, living in chaos, always having excuses but never following through on agreements. If someone's acting upstraighten up or get out.
Tony: When I was younger I was more open to exploring relationships with all different kinds of people. Now that I'm older, if they don't have certain qualities, I'm not interested. Compassion and kindness are the two big ones. If someone's prejudiced against different races, misogynistic, or anti-Semitic, I wouldn't pursue them.
Greater Tolerance for Ambiguity
The perseverance of youth benefits from single-mindednessas young men, we're often cocky, self-righteous, and even dogmatic. There's a bold and rejuvenating aspect to in-your-face activism, but there's also the danger of denying self-serving motives in ourselves and projecting them onto others. We can see this tendency in the schisms that often occur in activist organizations, which usually start out with the best intentions but sometimes self-destruct through internal bickering and self-righteous purges.
At midlife we're more likely to acknowledge that our own motives aren't always pure. As we grow older we realize that what seemed so black-and-white when we were young men begins to take on shades of gray. We're not quite so judgmental toward conflicting ideas, and we develop a greater tolerance and appreciation for moral ambiguity and pluralism.
Randy: I'm better able to understand that people make other choicesthat doesn't make them worse, just different.
Steve: I'm more accepting of uncertainty. I don't have to be in control all the time. I have more tolerance for ambiguity, in the sense that I see both sides. I'm more capable of seeing the good and the bad and tolerating both.
Mario: I have wonderful straight men friends who I've had sex with for yearsbut why should I have to make them admit they're gay? My partner and I used to be so militant. Why be so militant and angry? I want to meet people, not put them off. If they want my opinion, I have one, but I'm not going to shove it down their throats.
Tony: I used to think that if someone loved me, they had to love every part of me, and if they didn't, they didn't really love me. I learned that they could have a hard time with certain aspects of me and still love me. And I could do the same and still be there for them. Now I recognize the ambiguity in myself, how I feel about people in my life. Nothing is black or white. You have to take the whole package, the things you like along with the things you don't, because the things you like outweigh the other aspects.
Less Vulnerability to Grandiosity
As younger men, we feel the sky's the limit. Early success can lead to the belief that anything is possible. Of course, the flip side of being the greatest is being nothing at all! In the face of major disappointments, younger men are often more vulnerable to self-deprecation, instead of simply becoming more realistic.
At midlife we have more experience with success and disappointment. Reality teaches us that our initial inspiration has to be followed up with hard work if we are to get anywhere. By midlife we've usually seen some results, even though they are often more modest than what we had initially imagined. If we can recognize and appreciate what we actually have accomplished (rather than comparing our achievements with grandiose fantasies), we'll be less susceptible to tempestuous swings in self-judgment. Overall, we generally have more emotional resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments.
Kevin: My life has basically been on more of an even keel than ever before. My self-esteem fluctuated so painfully until 35. Now I feel like I'm off the roller coaster. I also recognize that trauma could overwhelm me, but on a daily basis, my mood is much more even. I don't miss the ups and downs.
Antoine: I don't dream as much about what I can do, or what's going to happen, or something being a successlike writing this screenplay; I just work on it, and that's it. I don't think, Oh, it's going to be wonderful, or so-and-so is going to star in it. I just want it to be a tight, well-written mystery, with legitimate suspects and no holes in the story. As long as it's something I can be proud of, that's fine. If it doesn't go anywhere, at least I know it was a tight script.
Brian: My goals are more modest; I'm more satisfied with an ordinary life. In junior high I wanted to be president. I went to Yale Law School the year behind Bill Clinton. In my 30s, from time to time I regretted my decision to drop out of law school and join the Peace Corps. This usually happened when I was feeling vulnerable and unsure of myself. But I haven't felt that way in years, and I think that's a reflection of being more satisfied with my actual choices.
Hal: I don't get too grandiose anyway, but putting myself down has decreased. Success or failure doesn't mean anything about me; it's just part of the process. But I still have a difficult time with finances. If I don't have enough money, I get down on myself.
Steve: Work feels less vulnerable because I've already achieved something, so I don't feel so discouraged when I make a mistake or encounter a disappointment. However, I still feel pretty vulnerable to rejection in relationships.
I no longer assume that I'll be great. I made a few bricks we can use in building this wall, or cobblestones for the road. I can still entertain the fantasies, but now I see them as a pleasant daydream, instead of getting caught up in them. At midlife the infinite, numinous things become more concretelike a gas cloud that becomes a planet. In youth I wanted to be a star. By midlife I'm satisfied being a planetor maybe just an asteroid.
Wisdom and Reflection
As we age the grasping for glory, being the best, and conquering the world give way to a deeper appreciation of wisdom. Perhaps grandiosity is needed when we're younger to sustain our initial efforts. We can understand this in terms of coming outpride and a certain amount of self-righteousness can help us in our battles with homophobic families and institutions.
At midlife we may still feel very strongly about the same social issues that we cared about when we were younger. But we are often able to enlist more skillful means to make our pointpartly because we no longer have to prove ourselves.
Wisdom often comes at the price of losing our innocence. We have a greater capacity for self-reflection and less need for self-deception. We have a more realistic sense of our own limitations and consequently a deeper empathy for others. Wisdom leads to a greater sense of modesty and equanimity.
Steve: I've studied a lot about midlife, so I'm familiar with these issues, but then I had to go through it myself. Now it's embodied wisdom. The experience of midlife moves from a thought to a scar. It's no longer a map, its a limp.
Mario: Patience is a virtue, and it's nice to have that. I'm the third oldest person in my company. I enjoy working with people in their 20s. I just went out to lunch with a coworker, and she was kind of rude to the waiter. She said she had no patience. I reminded her they could spit in your soup. That's wisdom.
Andrew: That's one of the biggest gifts of midlife. I have a very strong reflective sideabout myself and about life. Because of that and my experience, I understand life and people a lot more. That brings a certain wisdom and serenity. I have a bigger picture, whereas before I was scrambling to figure it all out.
Tony: One of biggest things I am learning is that how people respond to me is often based on how I bring myself into a situation. The feeling I have about myself influences how others treat me. When I was younger and got whatever negative reaction I expected, I figured these people were just assholesit's always them. It's only been the last few years that I've realized it's not just themoften it's not even them at allit's me.
Hal: Wisdom is the balance between the heart and the mind, and I feel like I have that. Integrating thoughts and feelings, so neither one has the overriding vote on what happens.
Humor and Healing
The task for older men is not to be the hero but to be a healer. Gay men are in a particularly advantageous place, as outsiders, to function as wounded healers, or shaman/tricksters for the larger society (see Chapter 10). A sense of humor helps us keep things in perspective, and we're less vulnerable to the ups and downs of everyday life.
Victor (Victor is 44 and Portuguese-American. He teaches a class on Buddhist psychology. He has a lover from Southeast Asia who is 16 years younger, and he shares his home with a longtime companion of 26 years): Having more perspective helps me realize that it doesn't help to infuse life with heaviness. The First Noble Truth: life is suffering. All these things are going to happendeath, illness, destructionand at various times when it's not happening, it's cause for a party. This realization can infuse a range of things with some lightness.
Steve: During the rage stage of adjusting to my disability, nothing was humorousnothing was funny. Now I feel like solar sails on a spaceshipsailing along instead of having to run my own engine. I find that I'm laughing at myself more. When I do stupid things or make mistakes, I used to get mad. Now I spill something and say, "Look at that messSteve must have been here."
Mario: Humor is so important in life. I listen to my siblings bickering, and I laugh at their squabbling. My mother says, "Why are you always laughing?" I watched David die; how can I take a jealous rivalry between my mother and sister seriously? They love me for it.
Hal: More than ever, I find myself laughing at situations. I laugh at myself, at how I see things going down. But behind that is some sadness that it shouldn't have to be that way. I've been on this healing path for 20 years. I wouldn't say I'm completely healed, but I have access to tools. If something powerful comes up, I know which tool to reach for.
Andrew: I can be a little obsessive, so my biggest challenge is about loosening up. Being in the moment, not being future-focused. When I'm in the moment, I can let go and feel the humor in the fullness of the moment. If I could do one thing that would be really good for me, that moment-to-moment awareness would be it.
Now that we've considered some of the strengths we bring to midlife, in the next chapter we'll look at some of the challenges we face during this transition.
Relating These Themes to Your
For many men, midlife is a fairly introspective time. At the end of each chapter, I've included some thoughts and questions to help you relate these ideas to your own experience. You might want to keep a journal of your reactions, to keep track of feelings, memories, insights, and desires stimulated by these examples.
What positive aspects of midlife have you noticed in your own life?
If you like, draw a "life line" of your life up to this point, showing various milestones along the way, such as coming out, your first gay relationship, changes in your career, and other significant events.
Next, draw this line into the future, and mark in whatever new developments you'd like to seeail the way to the end.
What does this bring up for you?
and post it to your social network
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