People often perceive life as a series of idealized milestone events, all of which have general time markers on them. Some learn to drive around age 16-18; at 18 they graduate high school and maybe go to college; at 21 they can order a drink; at 22 enter the “real world” or consider graduate school; maybe late 20’s early 30’s get married; couple years after, have children; then the extended period of work and family life; then children off to college 18 years later (with the repetition of milestones along the way for the children); then retirement around 65-70; then eventually, we’re done.
While obviously there are exceptions to these milestones, it’s striking for how many people this is the somewhat “solid” perception of life. The problem is, life isn’t usually so easily planned out, and when things don’t go according to this type of plan, it can lead to depression, anxiety, hopelessness, lowered self-esteem, and other manifestations of fear and disappointment.
The “grand plan” above tends to help children and teens formulate a sense of the world and the values that society as a whole expects of the individual. While each family and person develops their own value systems and own forms of the grand plan, it’s healthy and necessary for children to understand boundaries when growing up, including what’s technically expected of them in the world and society, so they have a sense of future direction within their daily lives. Without a sort-of grand plan, children and adolescents would be more prone to self-destruct in the present, as they would live in the day-to-day with no sense of what’s next, or what “should” be next.
However, moving past adolescence and towards independence, it becomes more clear just how much of a fluid life is. We come to see that the grand plan is actually more of a “grand idea”, and how permeable the plan or idea really is. We start to see that life isn’t necessarily prescribed, that our desires or life’s results may counter the ideal grand plan, that we’re more (or less) driven for certain things, and that some pieces of the grand plan may simply not interest or apply to us at all.
Some people live a single life and are very happy; some choose not to retire and work until they can’t anymore; some have unplanned children, or end up not having children even though they wanted children; some are in different careers than they desired; some get married and then get divorced; some want to get married, but are struggling to meet someone; etc., etc.
Why is it so hard to cope with life as a fluid?
The answer is: Because even though life as a solid is healthy for the developing person, at some point a transition needs to be made into the realities of life, and away from the fantasies of the grand plan (high school years is generally where this process starts). Sure, the grand plan may end up working out, but it generally doesn’t “just happen” to them the way many were taught it would. Sometimes life can be frustrating and disappointing. People may internalize the disappointments as a sign that something is wrong with them, rather than understanding that life is a fluid and doesn’t tend to go right along with the grand plan.
How do we deal with disappointments and frustrations while searching for the grand idea?
Know your goals, but be flexible: It’s good to know where you want to go in life, but it’s important to envision flexibility as you go. Is there room (physically and emotionally) for unplanned obstacles, or for changes in the plan as needed?
Radical Acceptance: There’s only so much we can control in our lives. When disappointments occur, or the plan isn’t happening, learning to accept, rather than to dwell, is a healthy skill. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean to become passive in life, but it helps to embrace the situation at hand in order to move forward, rather than dwelling in disappointment.
Eye toward the present, eye toward the future: Be aware of the balance between the present and the future. If we have two eyes on the future, then we’re missing the present, and often end up making mistakes that we may regret. If we’re only in the present, then our future goals are consciously non-existent and it becomes difficult to reach them. Learning how to balance cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally is important for navigating the fluidity of life
In the end, the more we believe that our lives are entitled be a solid, the more of a hit we take cognitively and emotionally as we try to navigate life. The more we allow fluidity and release fantasies of the prescribed life, the more we can handle the obstacles, turns, and changes that come our way.