Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Breathing Underwater -- an October possibility

I’ve said it before, more than once---not every October road is straight and smooth. And they do not always lead to happily-ever-after. There are potholes, speed bumps, and detours for us to negotiate. For instance---you’ve seen the stories on the tube and read them in the newspaper. (Our generation still does that.) The news is bad and the numbers are worse. A growing portion of our October population is not financially prepared for anything like the story-book retirement that advertisers tell us we deserve. For too many of us the future sounds a bit bleak---or perhaps a lot bleak.

Think of it this way. For the less fortunate of our October peers what lies in wait are possibilities they never expected or planned for. While the fortunate among us are riding off into the retirement sunset on the back of a smooth-riding pension pony, for too many others guaranteed pensions, real estate equities that always seemed to increase, and high-yielding 401Ks are last year’s dream, one that shows no sign of returning. At the same time the publicly-funded safety net of social services they hope will tide them over---food stamps, rental subsidies, health care---is strained as never before. We are told that even Social Security, the last resort for so many, is more vulnerable than ever.

I suppose it is human nature---looking ahead to judge our outcomes. We are continually measuring ourselves against our own expectations. Are we winning or losing? “Winning” is, of course, a powerful motivation. Conversely the realization that we might be “losing” is hard to accept. That is true at any age, but especially so in the late-life world of October.

Facing the harsh possibility of failure is hard enough. But what if you find yourself failing and the means to turn your situation around, to set things right, are out of reach? A sense of helplessness can bring the strongest person up short, regardless of their age. Sadly, October problems often produce a heightened sense of vulnerability. 

By then the anxious awareness of our failings comes face to face with a limiting reality---the time and energy required to start over are in retreat. Serious setbacks---be they health related, relational, financial, or psychological---may reinforce a perception of having lost control. What has worked in the past may no longer seem effective. How can we learn new skills and change course so late in the game?

In the end, of course, the test is how we deal with those disappointments---the October realization that our future will be something less, perhaps a lot less, than we had expected. On one hand we can step back, assess our situation, weigh the options, and create an action plan that includes the most promising ways to cope with our misfortune. the other extreme we can simply give up---turning away, refusing to accept the fact of it. Finally, when we can no longer deny our sad fate, we may resort to outright escape, literally running away rather than face the hurtful truth.

Of course, for October couples the disappointment of falling short is a shared experience. Not surprisingly, when apparent failure scuttles long-held dreams of how their future ought to be it can produce unexpected strain on even the best of relationships. For some it is a burden not easily shed---a source of guilt that is bound to have its way. 

By now you might be asking what has led me to this dark side of October. As often happens I bumped into those relational concerns---of falling short---as I proofed and revised my latest story. After forty-six years of marriage the Camdens have encountered a late-life speed bump. Their problem is a financial one---an underwater mortgage coupled with a private pension that has vanished as fast as the company declared bankruptcy.

By then the question for them had become---how does a couple deal with that terrible reality when one of them is searching for a way to survive and the other wants only to run and hide from the truth? It’s a hard thing, being underwater. “Breathing underwater” is even harder. Yet that simple necessity was about to become the mantra by which their new lives would be lived. From that point on they would view life through a distressing “underwater” prism.

It is a circumstance that happens too often these days. Yet for some reason I was drawn to the Camden’s situation, and especially their opposing ways of coping with their new life. It seemed like a story that ought to be told. In the course of Breathing Underwater I follow them as they deal with their personal challenges until, in due course, the ultimate question becomes---if and when they are able to surface for a breath of fresh air will they still be together?

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