As a non-parent, I’ve always been struck by how often parents believe that their small child’s tendencies or slight delays indicate what kind of adult they will be. I’ve seen enough difficult two-year-olds to grow into easygoing nine-year-olds, for instance, to ascribe temper tantrums to a child’s age rather than her personality. It’s clear to me that a child who is a little behind in reading might turn out to be a great reader, since everyone’s learning curve and timetable is different.
But it’s easy for me to see this, because I’m on the outside looking in. Parents are in the middle of it, so they believe the present indicates the future.
And why not? We all do the exact same thing when we think about our own lives. When there’s a problem, it’s so easy to think, “It’s always going to be this way.”
If we’re searching for a job, we think, “Maybe I will never find a job,” until we find one. If we want a good boyfriend or girlfriend, the same thing happens, and we think, “Maybe I’ll always be alone.”
When we’re ill, we may think, “I’ll never really be healthy,” or even “This is it,” even though the human body has a remarkable capacity to heal and get better.
I think a big part of wisdom and happiness lies in recognizing that the present is not the future. Things can, and frequently do, change dramatically.
Remembering how much things can change is a huge part of defeating depression. Depression is a bitch who tells you, “You’ll always feel this way.”
It’s not true. People can go from being suicidal and despondent to loving every day of their lives. I don’t mean just getting by. I’m talking about being really happy for years on end. I’ve seen other people do it, and I’ve done it.
Sometimes we think that things aren’t going to get better because it’s too late. We think things like, “I’m too old to get married.” “If I were going to be successful, it would have happened by now.”
I have friends who got married for the first time in their 40s and in their 50s, and they are blissfully happy. I know people who have gotten married for a second or third time, and they are happier than they’ve ever been. I know people whose careers have taken off in their 50s and 60s. Those are facts.
Many of my readers are writers, so I’ll put this in writer terms. You know how, about three fourths into the story, everything sucks? The protagonist’s problems appear insurmountable. She’s having her dark night of the soul.
That’s what happens before things get better.
We didn’t make up this formula, this narrative structure, for no reason. We use it again and again because we know that often, that’s how things really work, and we’re reminding ourselves of that.
You might even like to write out your own happy ending. Like this:
“After years of being underpaid, and hundreds of applications, Deborah finally found a job she loved with a great salary. Thank goodness she didn’t give up.”
“True love came to Joel late in life, when he was wiser and ready to make the most of it. The happiness he experienced with his partner then was so great, he forgot about all the disappointment of the past.”
If things are difficult and seem hopeless, maybe it’s just because you’re in the second act. You may be amazed at how things turn out.