The world can be divided in many ways, and one is between optimists and pessimists. The other day, Molly Fisk wrote, in “Benign Outcomes,” that even beyond this character trait, which is to some degree inborn, many of us are influenced by our negative past experiences to expect them to be repeated. In most cases, we are not even aware that we are doing this, since these memories are unconscious. Psychologists and psychoanalysts know that the unconscious is “atemporal.” In the world of the unconscious, it is always “now.”
That’s why so many of us react in situations that recall past trauma as if we were still helpless and small. When they happened, that’s usually exactly what we were, and in our mind we have not “caught up” to the present reality of being a competent adult.
So, for example, a woman in her 40s who experiences the anger of another woman as debilitating and is undone when she gets into conflicts with her contemporaries is reacting, at least in part, to her abusive mother, who used to berate her and hit her with her hairbrush when she was angry. This woman needs to constantly remind herself of the present reality that she is an adult who is not helpless and trapped by a frightening, bigger person who has all the power.
But what about the rest of us who suffer from garden-variety pessimism? There’s an awful lot to worry about, and even those of us who were not specifically abused may not have been made to feel particularly safe. Add to that the theory of evolutionary biologists that the worriers among us may have survived at a higher rate than did the happy-go-lucky types. In theory, our ancestors who lived out on the dangerous savannah would have fared better if they had been watching for the possibility of attack by lions and tigers and bears than if they decided to forget about it.
But forgetting about it some of the time is necessary to survive in peace—it’s called “healthy denial.” If you worried about every possibly dangerous situation or thing that could go wrong during the course of your day, you would never leave the house. This capacity for healthy denial is part of what terrorists target when they attack. They provoke the fear—a fear we all know is somewhat true—that anything can happen, anytime, anywhere.
Lately, I seem to be inundated with articles about how hard and sad and pathetic my “golden years” are going to be. As a single woman with no kids (a spinster), I, apparently, am due for a pretty bleak existence as I get older. I’m going to be lonely and broke, and in poor physical and psychological shape. I keep seeing these reports, but I never feel as if they’re talking about me. I’m not in denial . . . maybe I’m just optimistic. Or even a bit skeptical. Who are these people they’re talking about?
Though all these “poor single baby boomers” articles should worry me, they don’t. Having kids or a husband is no guarantee of a graceful decline. Of course, when it works the way it’s supposed to, I know that having kids and a husband is a lovely way to spend one’s later years. Yet having a husband is no sure safeguard against a lonely, destitute old age. He might die before you do, or be infirm at the same time, or have split long before you reach the twilight of your life.
Kids are no guarantee, either. They may not have the wherewithal—or the will—to care for you and their own families. At the risk of saying the morbid, sometimes kids die first, or maybe they and you might be unlucky enough to have a poor relationship and they wouldn’t come around. I wish it would never turn out like that, but sometimes it does. I have single friends who worry that they’ll break a hip and be stuck somewhere, alone, but I don’t really think about stuff like that. I’m hoping to just drop dead one day.
So, despite not having a husband or kids, I’m planning (well, actually hoping) to have a good old age. I’m making regular contributions to an IRA. I have disability and long-term-care insurance. I own my home. I eat right and, so far, I’m in good health. I’m relatively likeable, and so I’m crossing my fingers that my friends and family will enjoy spending time with me when I’m old, and will even step in to take care of me if/when that time comes. These are the things I hope my married-with-children friends are doing, too.
So . . . I’m not going to get myself into a tizzy worrying about how horrible life will be when I’m old, just because I’m single. I appreciate the warning, but I have a life to live. Whatever happens, happens.