It’s an interesting word, isn’t it? Orientation. And of course, more troublesome is its evil twin – disorientation.
I was having a conversation with an old friend this morning. We were discussing the fact that while we learn from the past and hypotheticals are useful for taking lessons, we have today, and whatever comes next. Yesterday? We bear its echoes, its wounds, its mirthful memories. But there are no do-overs.
There is today, and whatever comes next.
So how do you orient yourself to “this day forward” when everything about this day (much less the future) no longer resembles the picture you once had in mind?
Or any of the pictures you once had in mind?
There are any number of reasons people find themselves disoriented. It’s not an uncommon state, to varying degrees.
Orienting Ourselves When Lost
Who hasn’t been lost in a monster shopping mall and searched for the diagram with the “You Are Here” arrow?
Who hasn’t taken a wrong turn on the highway, or for that matter – metaphorically?
You look around, you don’t recognize the scenery, and there are no markers to help you get your bearings.
You fumble for maps or a flashlight or your cell phone. You focus on your GPS. You talk yourself out of panic and replace it with reason and calm. Then you can put the pieces together of what you know, in order to figure out where you may be.
And once you know where you may be – even if uncertain – you’re closer to making your way to your planned destination.
Then again, what’s to say you can’t get lucky? A passerby may assist with directions. Trial and error may lead you to the right path. The wrong road may bring you to a new adventure, and your disorientation turns out to be a gift.
But what if disorientation is something more serious, more stubborn, more damaging?
Psychological disorientation may be defined as:
… the inability to locate oneself in one’s environment with reference to time, place, and people.
Life events can hit anyone of us at any time, tossing us into turmoil – and disorientation – for brief or extended periods. Even happy events like marriage and a new baby can throw us for a loop as we make considerable adjustments to life with expanded responsibilities and, in the case of an infant, more worry and less sleep.
Then there are the diabolical stressors that scramble our beliefs and our support systems: accident, illness, death, divorce, job loss, devastating financial loss, and relocation.
Oh, you may disagree with me on the list I offer here, but having experienced each one, and more than once, I’ll stick to my guns on saying that each is disorienting in significant ways – and sufficient to bring on insomnia, weight loss (or gain), panic attacks, loss of confidence, moments of paralysis, and of course, depression.
Death and Divorce
I’ve written of death and divorce before, comparatively in order to make specific points, including that both may result in extraordinary heartache, commotion, confusion, an indefinite period of withdrawal, of acting out, of flailing about. And yes, disorientation – that inability to locate yourself with reference to time, place, or people - because you cannot recognize yourself in this new role, or how you now relate to your environment.
The death of a loved one is earth shattering. When my father died suddenly (a car accident), my universe flipped on its axis and I couldn’t grasp anything. Some 20 years later, though more mature and more able to handle it, I felt similarly when my mother died without warning, in her sleep.
Divorce (for many of us) is more than a change in marital status or even the way we live our daily lives; it’s one small explosion after another, sometimes for years.
Job Loss, Financial Loss, Loss of Face or Status
Job loss, to those who are used to being the breadwinner, is a special kind of wound. If the inability to generate an income continues for long, we lose a piece of self – our belief in self as having tangible value.
And of course, there are the very real consequences of significantly reduced (or no) income: loss of home, loss of friends, loss of access to health care, to decent schools for children; the necessity of a move to wherever you can manage.
There is loss of dreams.
And what do these events have in common? A loss of identity – even among the strongest, the most capable, the most self-confident, the most fearless.
And warranted or not, there is shame.
Moving and Moving On
A relocation may be for good reasons or not so good; you choose to start over in a new job, a new city, with that fresh start mentality that breathes energy back into your spirit and your step. It’s still stressful; you need to re-establish connections for yourself (and possibly family) – doctors, dentists, schools; new neighbors, new commutes, new supermarkets, new pharmacies. You’re lost on the road, over and over – metaphorically and literally – though eventually you’ll orient yourself and feel alright. Hopefully, better than alright.
There’s relocation for more challenging reasons and here perhaps the disorientation is greater; this is not a choice so much as a consequence, and a consequence of other disorienting events at that. You are effectively forced to find new footing on new ground upon which to lead your life – constrained by the fact of fewer options, rather than more.
Positive Attitude + Honesty
I’m a believer in staying as strong and as positive as possible. But I also adhere to the belief that to hide our heads in the sand is to be, well… foolish. And who wants to appear foolish?
Moreover, who wants to find themselves unprepared as a result - or lacking in compassion for others and what they’re going through, out of ignorance because no one will speak their truths?
I think we need to tell it like it is: who we are as we pass through new life stages, what we struggle with, where we lose our way, and when we are afraid. Naturally, I believe we should also share our triumphs and our discoveries.
The world is a complex place. Our communities are fractured, social systems are riddled with holes, and many of us fall through the cracks – every damn day. And if we say nothing, we fix nothing. We accept the status quo, and learn nothing.
Let’s speak up when we feel well and strong and ready to tackle any challenge, knowing we’ll leave our world a little better off than it was before we got up in the morning. When I say I’m feisty, flirty, and fifty-something – it’s because I am!
But might we also agree that midlife comes with very real headaches? With narrowing options in many respects? Must we go on pretending that aging isn’t a mix-master, that growing older isn’t frightening, that we aren’t worried about money, loneliness, our changing bodies – especially when hit by divorce or illness or a necessary but unwanted move? That we don’t find ourselves at least occasionally in a strange and disorienting place?
There are days I feel juiced, great, sexy, powerful – and yes, beautiful.
And just as many when I feel worn down, lethargic, neutered, fragile. And yes, invisible.
Vulnerability is Bravery
What if we admit – together – that it’s alright to feel confident and also afraid? To feel vibrant in many ways, yet in others – worn out? What if expressing our vulnerability takes more bravery than putting on a daily smile?
Can we dare to state – clearly – that most of us can’t run to the gym, pop the latest vitamin supplement, rework a rusty resume, refashion a second (or third or fourth) career, nip here and tuck there, pick up and start over in a new city or a new life – as though it were as easy as putting our minds to it?
If it were that simple, I’d be “there” with my “today and everything that comes next” exactly as I would like it to be, with my older and wiser self, my good days which are exceptionally good, my stories, my silliness, my skills, my capacity for learning and for living fully – and my desire to contribute something that matters.
But it’s not that easy.
It takes work, more work, stamina, more stamina. It takes help. It takes community. It takes luck.
I read a good deal around the web, and as a participant in many communities, I enjoy reading about men and women who rebuild their lives after dramatic life events present obstacles. I particularly pay attention to the women who remind us that courage and grace and even optimism remain intact.
If family life is not what it once was in this country, I am encouraged that we are recreating communities of many sorts to nourish our spirits, to make real contributions, and to reach out with virtual hands to listen to and support each other.
I believe in reinvention, but I also know it isn’t simple, it’s rarely achieved alone, and it can be exhausting – especially when we must embark on Reinvention Road time and time again. Yet I am convinced that if we speak the truths of our lives – plainly, eloquently, pragmatically, ruthlessly, diplomatically, tenderly – with equal measures of joy and sorrow, of certainty and fear, of satisfaction and disappointment – we are better off than if we spin nothing but pretty tales of shiny success stories.
I believe we’re all orienting and reorienting every day, in a hundred little ways. We’re also reinventing ourselves and our perspectives as we go. But sometimes there are stages in which the adjustments are enormous, terrifying, a gaping black hole which seems ravenous enough to swallow us alive. These reinventions are not of our choosing, but they are nonetheless necessary.
Might we not speak of them honestly? And in so doing, might we feel less isolated, less polarized, and poised instead to help each other accomplish them in a more realistic manner?
© D. A. Wolf