Sunday, June 27, 2010

Choices

When we were in our 20's my sisters and I spent an evening making collages. It was something we read about in a magazine as a way to get to know yourself better. The exercise is simple. Take a bunch of magazines and cut out pictures and phrases that are meaningful to you. Don't take too much time to analyze why you picked certain things, just go with your gut reaction. Then arrange them on a large piece of poster board to see if any common themes are revealed.

I still remember the three of us hanging out that night with stacks of magazines spread out across the floor in our family room. Each of us had a different color poster board - mine was a deep red, my sister's was pale blue and my other sister's was lime green. At the end of the process, our collages really represented our personalities.

Years later, when I got my own house I framed my collage and hung it on the wall in my basement. One of my favorite phrases on my collage is: Your computer has a key labeled "Escape." Does your life have one too?

Everyone needs to escape once in awhile. For some people, its a vacation to a tropical island getaway. For others, it could be spending the afternoon in a dark movie theater imagining just for a few hours what it would be like to have a different life. For me, it is drinking wine with the Boy out on the patio on a warm summer's night. But what do you do when a temporary escape is not enough?

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the choices we make in life. Everyone around me seems to be struggling with at least one major challenge that is causing them to question all of the decisions that have led them to this point. Maybe this is a natural progression as we move through our 30's. Our careers or relationships have not turned out exactly as we had hoped and we are wondering if its too late to take a different path.

Yesterday, I was having breakfast with the Boy and we were taking about career choices. Both of us have been feeling unfulfilled in our jobs and we want to explore other options. It seems like every time I start to consider another career path, I hit the same stumbling block. To make a career change would require me to go back to school.

For many of us, our career options are dependent upon the decisions we made in college. We live in a society where the 18 year old version of yourself gets to decide if you want to be a teacher, a lawyer or an engineer. It is a miracle that there are any people out there who are happy in their career when it all starts with an 18 year old person who has absolutely no idea what they want out of life.

And how strange it is that as adults we still allow ourselves be defined by the choices of that 18 year old person. If we had only known then what we know now, certainly we would have chosen something else.

Later that afternoon, the Boy and I went to meet up with some of his friends to watch the World Cup soccer match. I happened to strike up a conversation with one of the guys and he asked me why all women are obsessed with weddings. "They are 25 years old and they think that the wedding is going to be their perfect day and they will be just like a princess," he explained. "And after they get married they believe that somehow their entire life will change and they will live happily ever after."

I told him he was asking the wrong girl since marriage is one of the last things on my agenda. But it was interesting to hear a guy's perspective on the whole thing, especially one who has been married for five years. We went on to talk about communication, realistic expectations and what it takes to make a relationship work. And it alerted me to yet another significant life choice that most people make when they are too young to really know themselves or what they want out of life.

Now of course, we can't hold off on making all of our life's choices until we are old enough to know better. That would mean perpetual unemployment and loneliness throughout a good portion of our lives. But I do think we need to acknowledge that we are constantly evolving and that it's ok if some of the life's choices we made in our 20's no longer fit us in our 30's.

I've probably told you before about my favorite book called the 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People. When things get tough, I like to pull it out to help me focus on what really matters in life. One of the tips in the book relates to setting your goals. It suggests that too many people choose goals based on what others think. Instead you should figure out what you really care about and set meaningful goals based on what matters to you.

Maybe part of the reason we are not happy with the choices we made when we were younger is that we don't feel they were a true representation of us. If you think about it, the college you attend or the major you choose could be as much a result of family or peer pressure than a reflection of your true desires. The same could be true for the person you decide to marry. It's not surprising that we find ourselves seeking out other options as we grow older.

While we are constantly evaluating our own choices, we may spend an equal amount of time judging other people's choices. There is a common saying that we are our own worst critics. Obviously, whoever came up with that has never met my Mom. All of my siblings know that while she can be our biggest supporter, she can also be our toughest critic. And its not just my Mom. All of us are pretty quick to jump in with our opinions, whether the other person wants to hear them or not.

I am sure that my family situation is not that different from many others out there. Somehow we have gotten the idea that we have the right to judge and criticize the people who are closest to us. And we convince ourselves that it is acceptable behavior because we are doing it in the name of love.

This week it was my sister who was the victim of some pretty harsh criticism from my Mom, which was completely out of line. We were talking on the phone yesterday and venting about how frustrating it is to be grown adults whose choices are under constant scrutiny. She said that she was looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, she will find it here.

I believe that there are very few choices we make in life that we can't get out of if we really want to. The hardest part is figuring out which path you want to take. Sometimes there is value in sticking things out. Other times, it is best to cut your losses and move on.

No matter what choices you make in life, the most important thing is to be good to yourself and be supportive of the people you love. And when all else fails, just hit the escape key.

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