The Grace of Failure (Or, How to Avoid a Midlife Crisis)

Forty years ago today—on December 14, 1976—I was born.

Since then, nothing has worked out as planned.

And that, is a saving grace.

You see, if I had become what I planned to be on my fifth birthday, I’d be a firefighter right now. As a boy, I was enthralled by the heroism of it. But now, I have a bad back and I hate thrill-seeking and I go out of my way to avoid third degree burns.

Courage comes in many forms. Sometimes, we plan for one kind of courage, but we end up having to find forms of bravery more consistent with who we are.

By my tenth birthday, the Chicago Bears were reigning Super Bowl champions, and I planned to be a running back at Soldier Field, like Walter Payton. But I’m slow, relatively small, not very strong, and I don’t like people bumping into me. For me, bruises rank right up there with third degree burns.

Sometimes, it’s important to accept that our idealistic plans will be altered by our very realistic limitations.

If I’d become what I planned to be when I was fifteen, I’d be a trial lawyer right now, just like Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, hammering away at Jack Nicholson. The problem is, I don’t like conflict or courtrooms, and I’m not sure what I think about Tom Cruise anymore.

It’s easy to plan a Hollywood life, but it takes some growing up and a lot of self-acceptance to gladly choose a life that is a little more ordinary.

A decade ago, I planned to build a life in the bustling Chicago suburbs. The problem was, by the time I was thirty, I’d forgotten the little one inside of me who loves quiet and slowness and forested paths and towns where everyone waves to each other.

Often, when we’re young, we plan to grow up into something big and flashy, but sometimes growing up is really about growing young again, reclaiming who we’ve always been, and living the way we’re wired.

By the time I was thirty-five, I planned to write a little blog for a handful of therapy clients interested in working directly with me. It seemed arrogant to hope for anything more.

Sometimes our plans are too big. But just as often our shame makes our plans too small, admonishing us for dreaming big, calling it conceit. Yet, our plans get to be exactly as big as our love for our self, our people, and our world.

Now, here I am. The big 4-0.

Now, I’ve got new plans. Bigger plans. I’ve got a new book coming out in March, a second new book I’m going to give away for free to those who pre-order the first book, and I’ve got all sorts of hopes and plans for all of it.

Yes, I still make plans. We have to. Plans propel us forward.

Yet today, on my fortieth birthday, I find myself hoping none of my plans work out.

It would have been a disaster—particularly for people in burning buildings and the Chicago Bears—if I had become who I wanted to be when I was five and ten years old. Likewise, when I’m fifty, I don’t want to be who I planned to be at forty. A true self is a constantly emerging self.

A good life is an always evolving life.

Growing up isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about giving in to the best parts of who we are. Slowly. Over time. As we begin to glimpse them, cease to reject them, welcome them, embrace them, live them. Growing up is about learning how to listen to the voice of grace, which is whispering within each of us, all the time, nudging us in a particular direction for today.

That, I think, is the challenge of turning forty. This birthday makes you want to look backward or forward. However, the question it begs of you is, can you stay focused and look deeper into the now? Can you live today as authentically as possible, so your days will eventually take you somewhere you ultimately want to be?

A couple of weeks ago, my oldest son looked into the now, as we crossed a bridge in our hometown, far outside the bustling Chicago suburbs. Someone we didn’t know had just waved to us in passing, the sun had just set, and, with more than a little awe in his thirteen-year-old voice, he observed, “Twilight over the river here is beautiful.”

I’m not sure how many years I have left. But I have only one plan I’m planning on keeping: I’m going to keep looking at now, I’m going to keep listening for the voice of grace, and I’m going to keep trusting that, if we do this, the twilight over our lives can be beautiful, too.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.