Escaping the prison of self

Escaping the prison of self

Being able to see people before they get close to you is a huge advantage when it comes to assessing their character. I have always made it a policy that my office door and my desk shall be as far apart as possible. That way I see how someone walks, where they look, how self-conscious they are, whether they are preparing themselves for the minor encounter of meeting me. First impressions are important and very often right. Give them a chance.

So it was with some delight that I glimpsed this short, cheery man making his way towards me some time ago. He looked slightly diffident, as though the meeting was likely to inflict pain on him. But his natural demeanour made up for any lack of confidence and when he got near enough I could see that his smile was genuine and his extended hand, welcoming. There are people you want to know and some you are less keen to engage with. First impressions here were good. This was a potential friend.

Our chat was, as intended, about him. He was open, as far as I could tell, honest, decent. At one point he shed a few tears. That is normal for people who find someone they can talk to after a long period of isolation. It’s not a big issue. Many men who come to talk to us cry. We all feel sorry for ourselves at times and with justification. I have never understood the absurd concept that it wasn’t somehow manly to cry. If something touches you very much, a tear of acknowledgement is the least tribute you owe it.

The more people I see, the more I realise that most of us have some early terror, real or imagined lingering in our life. Life’s big struggles are not so much at the end, more at the beginning. By the time we face death we have lived, something of an achievement, something to be proud of. At the outset all we see is a battle for independence. When we get it we realise that it can also be isolation. When it is, escaping the prison of self challenges even the greatest Houdini.

Here indeed was a prisoner. Brainy, clever, but not Einstein. Good, civilised job with high security of tenure. Married to a successful woman, intellectually stimulating, mildly competitive. Beautiful children, being almost the ideal mixture of brat and charm, just what you want them to be. Was it a mid-life crisis? We don’t really admit that possibility, accepting instead a mid-life opportunity. But it can seem like a crisis. I remember that well.

At midlife you have two choices. Plough on with the career you have chosen. You have a ton of goodwill backing you, you are familiar with the surroundings, know the ropes, you are experienced. Or you can break away into a new world, learn some additional tricks, strike out on your own, free, independent. The fresh air of dawn is something we all need from time to time. There’s a risk. You may find the pressure too much. You may fall at the first fence. But coronavirus has taught us that we seldom now know where the fence is. You cannot avoid all the traps.

Those who have stood for the first time on the top diving board know the feeling. You have parents, friends, teachers, mentors, coaches, priests whispering advice in your ear. It’s a long way down to remain poised. You have not done this before. You can turn back, should indeed turn back if you are not certain. But you are never truly certain. So you go on. It may not be the most artistic dive in history but you survive it. You are a high-board diver.

Whatever happens after that, you never look back. You took a step many people wouldn’t have taken. It may turn out to be a false step. There is only one certainty in a high dive. That is taking the step itself. The only justification for it is that it is an act of courage. Whatever the landing, the bravery, the excitement of taking the step, these are the justifications, not the potential rewards. Childhood is challenging; midlife is the biggest test.

There is plenty of advice around to help you do whatever you decide, but only you can decide it. If you let others influence the decision too much you will never forgive yourself – regardless of whether it works out or not. Living with your own decisions about the few truly major points in your life is what makes your later years worth living. ‘Guts’ is at least as important as brilliance and considerably more memorable..

So what happened to the cheery-looking man standing on the high board?

I’ll let you know when he escapes his prison of self.