Fear. Debt. Money: I'm 45 and scared

At 24, I thrived on fertile uncertainty. Now all I see is chaos and threat

Published September 9, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

Hi, Cary,

It pains me to be at the point where I'm writing to you for advice. I've never seriously relied on anyone else for support, and I've got that German/Catholic "stand on your own two feet" thing going on. That being said, I've fallen and I can't seem to get back up.

I worked my way through college and graduate school. I worked as a receptionist, typist, secretary, graphic designer, interactive designer and academic researcher, in that order. I also had lots of fun on the side (running an independent magazine, playing in rock bands, volunteering on a suicide hotline, starting a farmer's market in my town.) I'm now 45 (gulp) and I was fired from my last position at a big-deal East Coast university this June. It was a classic case of the insecure manager going on attack.

While I'm truly glad to be out of that particular professional shark pit, I am completely lost as to what to do next. I'm 45 and I'm scared, and I feel I'm tragically unfocused. I've been working in academia for the last five years, but I don't have a Ph.D., so I fear being relegated to more grunt work, paired with more insecure managers with a doctoral degree. It's been too long since I've done graphic design. My portfolio creaks like my joints. I like doing social-media work but I don't have enough experience --  hiring managers are looking to hire 20-something whippersnappers vs. the broken-down likes of me. I'm too depressed and confused to even paint, my latest hobby. Don't tell me to go to therapy, please. I don't have any health insurance and no money for a co-pay even if I did.

The last time I was out of a job it was 1990, I was a sprightly 24 and I had no trouble finding secretarial temp work and another secretarial gig whenever I needed one. Now I fear I'm trapped in some kind of pit I dug for myself -- the wrong type of education, the wrong type of work, etc. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I fear I'm never going to be able to work again. It kills me that I feel I have a lot of skills -- perhaps too many -- and that I may never work with a great team again to build something of value. Help me, Cary-wan Kenobi -- you're my only hope.

Broken Down in Beantown

Dear Broken Down in Beantown,

You are creative and adaptable. Why, at 45, are you so scared?

You know that life is uncertain and most jobs are bullshit and people get hired and fired for reasons having to do with what kind of childhood their boss had. You know that sometimes you get the breaks and sometimes you don't. You know that luck does not determine what your worth is. You know that status does not determine this either. You have an interesting and varied life, and you may as well continue to have an interesting and varied life.

When chance has been mostly on our side, we downplay its importance. When chance turns against us, then we notice how random things are! I suggest you think of the ways that chance and the world around you have collaborated to create the opportunities you have had, and keep in mind that this is likely to continue. If there were not farmers and independent magazines and musicians and suicide hotlines, these things you have done would not have been possible. You collaborated with the world. You participated. That is what you will continue to do. So look around you. What do you wish to participate in?

What you're having, it seems to me, is a period of paralyzing fear in which you have taken leave, momentarily, of the courage and intuitive understanding that have so far kept you going. What has happened so far in your life to make you think you are in danger? Every time you have tried to do something, it has worked out. Every time you have had a notion, you have acted on it.

You are an educated and experienced Westerner living in a major capital of Western influence, you have lots of friends in elite institutions, you know how elite institutions and their managers function, you know how the elites think and behave, and you could probably talk them into just about anything if you had to, because you are a good deal smarter and more experienced than they are.

They've just got you running scared.

It seems to me that such moments as this when many people are paralyzed are opportune moments to do the unexpected.

So turn to your network, your tribe. Maybe it's time to form another band.

You are second-guessing your choices in life. Had you "followed the rules," would you be any better off now?

My wife and I went to a conference for small-business lending two weeks ago hosted by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. There was a good deal of anger and fear in the room. One common refrain was, "But I followed the rules! I paid my bills, I worked my job, I saved! Where is my bailout?"

The problem is living with uncertainty. The problem is not knowing the future.

Some people know the future. They are not necessarily to be envied. Consider the condemned man. He knows his future. He is going to be put to death. He has few options. But the condemned man also has very few problems. Meals are brought to him. Decisions are made. He does not have to figure out how to resolve his fate. He does not have to fit the noose around his neck or build the scaffold. That will be taken care of.

He does have some regrets. There were things he wanted to do. At one time the condemned man had an idea for a tourist agency that could take him around the world; he fantasized about driving a busload of tourists around Greek islands. He thought he would have an affair with the hotel owner or the tour guide, a native speaker of Greek who stood at the front of the bus and told the tourists about ruins and mountains and old villages. The condemned man knows that's not going to happen. He's never going to start that tourist agency. He's never going to drive that bus around Greek islands. Tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, he is going to be put to death.

Does any of us face a fate worse than that of the condemned man?

We too are condemned to die. We just don't know when it's coming.

So what do we do with our time while we are here?

The other day I was touring the crumbling brick-and-mortar ruins of a place called a "bookstore." In this place were many e-books in paper form, called "books." I bought one. Maybe just for nostalgia. I bought "The Black Swan."

"The Black Swan" got me thinking about your situation. The danger of the unexpected is always with us but never apparent. Then it got me thinking about my cancer. I just survived cancer. I spent most of this year dealing with that. My cancer was unexpected. So was the treatment. So was my recovery. The whole last year has been all about the unexpected. It was about not knowing the future.

In the fall of 2008, when the economy was just starting to fall apart, I had dinner with a friend and former professor who taught Japanese literature and then became a lawyer and spent his professional life doing business in Asia. He said then that what was so peculiar wasn't that the value of various mortgage-backed securities had dropped but, more perplexingly, no one knew what their value was.

In other words, the problem was that we did not know the future.

But we never know the future.

The problem was that we suddenly knew that we did not know.

In a way, it was a moment of enlightenment.

We now know that we do not know.

So what will we do with this? Will we panic? Or will we dance?

There is no rescue. There is just the chaos we live with.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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