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The Third Act (Thank you Jane Fonda)

When I hit sixty years of age (nearly 9 years ago) something shifted for me. That something was visceral and profound and spiritual. It was something “deep in my bones” (other than the creeping arthritis of which I had become aware). I had become aware of its approaching intensity, but could not yet identify it. It was mostly “just a feeling” that never quite went away.

In the past 9 years that “feeling” has grown into an ingrained and satisfying awareness that my life is “just fine, thank you”. Much of that just fine-ness has come about as a result of deep reflection and some radical redefinition of my history, of the events of my life. As Jane says, almost as an aside, “taking a look at our history and seeing what we ‘made up’ about it.” That’s an important distinction, after all, isn’t it? That part about “making it up”. We are hearing that phrase a lot these days; that our lives and how we live them are simply based upon a collection of stories that we make up.

How much of what we live with, the burdens we carry, the “heavy mantle of adulthood” we drag around with us is no mare than what we invented? Something we made up about something that happened? Something we treat as inviolate reality? Did what ever it was really happen? Probably, or at least some version of what we remember occurred. Yet, more likely than not, it’s only a version of what actually happened. Not the whole thing, or the ‘real deal’. It starts to get tweaked in our mind’s eye at nearly the same instance the event happens. And once we “tweak” it that becomes the new reality! The truth never happened, and the “made up” version becomes “the truth”.

There are now reams of scientific studies and accounts in the legal profession that have proven that the least reliable evidence in a case comes from eyewitnesses. Yes, the absolutely LEAST RELIABLE evidence! And yet we often base our essential assumptions on “how life is”, or “how it works” on partially remembered details, some event (or events) of decades past as though it were the truth! And there we are, mired in THAT’S JUST HOW IT IS! And even if we have Perfect Total Recall, there is the infinitely more important distinction of “what we MADE IT MEAN” – about the people involved, about the circumstances, about ourselves.

If your big brother beat you up from time to time did you decide he was a bully and assign him a “life sentence” of Big Bully? (What kind of relationship can you possibly have with a Big Bully?) Perhaps you decided/made up that you were a helpless human being and became Incapable Ivan? (So, no wonder you dropped out of school, your business doesn’t succeed, or you have NO VOICE to speak up for yourself.) Perhaps you invented that you can’t count on anyone to defend you, care for you, be there for you, and became Aloof Al. (The distance is safe, but if no one can get close what chance do you have for meaningful relationships?) Perhaps you decided that you’ll never get pushed around again, and you became Defensive Dan. (Well, right, you won’t get pushed around, but you’re probably not a very nice guy either. How much fun is that?)

Who knows? The point is you evolved into who you are as an adult, in large part, because you MADE UP what the events in your life mean for you and you designed yourself and your life accordingly. And, hey, this isn’t just about men! I only chose a man in the example because I could think of names to go with the analogies. You can just as easily fill in “Nagging Nancy”, “Defacing Dana”, “Careless Cara”, and so on. ALL our personas have a source … and that source is an invention of our interpretation of life’s offerings. Please don’t misunderstand, everything we MAKE UP doesn’t lead us to unhappiness, misery, and a general discontent with life. Many things have served us well, and led us into wonderful careers, fulfilling relationships, and satisfying lives. We develop incredible strengths and talents out of our created meanings just as well. What IS important to remember, I believe, is that no matter which way it goes, we are still “making it up”. And, that is the REALLY good news!

The joy, the beauty of having a Third Act, as Jane calls it, in which to participate is that we get to redefine our lives and our experiences any way we want. Once we know and absorb that we really do just “make it up”, then we get to start making decisions about how tightly we want to hang on to our past interpretations. Is our “version of the truth” in service to our lives or destructive? After all, it’s all our own invention, and we can tinker with it all we want. We get to re-write the meaning and live life from a new perspective. How about writing a Third Act in which we are the sole authors, and the ending is NOT already written? What would it be like to redefine our experiences as we go along in such as way as it serves the life we choose to live, not live a life that we suffer by default? What would be possible for YOUR Third Act?

I want to close with a deeply personal experience, one that I share with a heartfelt intention with you all. As you read, pay attention to what you “make up” about what I write, what occurred, about me, about the people involved, about what your own biases lead you to believe, the conclusions you draw. Then, when all is said and done, re-evaluate where you are and where you want to leave it.

As a child, there was a certain level of abuse that existed in my life. For my siblings and myself. Mostly we kept it a secret. That’s what one did in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and still in the 70’s. That is true. It is factual. There was abuse.

What I “remember” about that abuse is what is open to debate. What is actual vs. what I created – out of fear, anger, repression, or out of replayed memories and my own interpretations of what “actually happened”? However, the ultimate effects of all that abuse, in whatever form it occurred, have so much more to do with what I MADE IT MEAN than with what actually happened.

And what I made it mean was multifaceted and destructive: that I was an inconsequential female; that I didn’t ‘matter’; that the abuser was evil and irrational; that I didn’t deserve to be happy (joyful, content – you fill in the blanks). I made it MEAN all those things we associate with “abuse”. Pretty much all of them! And the consequences followed my invented meanings: years of severe clinical depression, thoughts of worthlessness, self-destructive behaviors (anorexia, sleep deprivation), chronic anxiety and PTSD. And more. I was pretty messy, to be sure. There were also more productive outcomes: I was deeply compassionate with those that suffer; I had empathy for those that get “hooked” into depression and self-abusive behaviors; I can stand in another’s shoes and know their pain and suffering from a deeply personal place; and I was an absolute ROCK that my daughters would not EVER go through what I went through if at all possible. I became a voice for getting abuse out the basement and into the open where it belongs; a voice that secrecy is as destructive as the abuse itself.

To be clear, abuse messes up a kid (a woman, a man, any person who suffers at the wrongful intention of another). Absolutely, it does! Abuse is untenable, unacceptable, and deplorable. It is not to be tolerated, by our society, our legal system, and most certainly not by ourselves. This is NOT a treatise on finding ways to make abuse acceptable. There are none.

What changed my life dramatically is in how I renegotiated my relationship to the abuse that, as a matter of fact, occurred. For over 40 years I carried around the scars of “being an abused child” and bore the intense weight of the title “Survivor of Abuse”. Our recent social attitudes greatly assisted me in deepening the ties to the unhappy parts of my childhood. I kept it real. I kept it alive with my stories. I enrolled everyone I could in how “awful” a person the abuser was. I thought I was “helping” women take ownership of the abuse that happened to them; to face it head-on and not be ashamed or hide out. And perhaps I did some positive work in that way. But, I also wanted to punish “him” and most of all I wanted to punish myself. Over and over. In short, I chronically re-abused myself with my stories, my tight clinging to the past of my meaning-making brain (however fact based), my unwavering inability and unwillingness to create a new meaning!

Twenty-seven years of therapy, endless hours of meditation, spiritual teachings, and retreats, and vision quests, dozens of self-help books (maybe more), personal growth workshops and trainings and courses, a husband that never gave up on me … I know it all led me to one simple place. A place I didn’t enter until my Third Act. I had to come to a place in my heart and being where I was simply willing to lay it all down. I had to be willing to make closure, as Jane invites us to do, with the history, the stories, and the memories. I had to be willing to change my definition of myself, to give up my titles, my interpretation of who I thought I was. And one day, after all the work and all the personal growth and all the introspection and all the journaling, I simply knew. I am no longer an “Abused Child”. Abuse happened. True. But the abused child lived in the 40’s and 50’s. She no longer exists. She does not need a life of her own. She is free, and I am free. For my Third Act.