Starting again demands courage, energy and optimism. No matter what your circumstances, how you approach your new life will shape the experiences you have. Remember, the world is hard on everyone, but it is merciless on those who give up.
Reasons People Start Again
People start again in many ways and for many reasons. And they may do so at any time of life. As medical advances push the average lifespan beyond 100, radical new starts will become even more common. Indeed, there are signs of this already, particularly among the over-60s, whose divorce rate has increased. In part, this is because people are better informed about their health and able to stay active for longer. Once the children leave home, the couple reach their mid-50s and wonder if they really want another 50 years together. In the past, they would have resigned themselves to their fate. In the future, they won’t have to.
Divorce is perhaps the most common way in which people restart their lives. Of course, this may be voluntary or involuntary; either way it is a tremendous shock, especially when the couple had been married a long time, as with the “silver splitters”. In many cases, divorce also means a change of address. Sometimes, particularly for men, it means less contact with the children – maybe even a loss of contact.
But divorce isn’t the only reason for a fresh start. Sometimes, people recover from a long-term physical or mental illness. Over time, personality disorders, for example, diminish in intensity. Or take something like social anxiety. This is a very common mental illness that often ruins someone’s teens and twenties. As they mature and gain confidence, however, the socially anxious care less and less what others think of them. Sometimes, people find a new medication that frees them from depression, or a new therapy that helps them overcome obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.
Then there is the radical change of location. Even moving a couple of blocks away involves new friends and neighbors. Some people move to a new city or even a new country. Often, that is because they meet a new partner, maybe someone who wishes to return to their place of origin.
Pessimism and negativity are big dangers when starting a new life. The old saying “life is what you make it” is a good one. If you begin in a hesitant and fearful manner, this will shape the course of events. For example, a 57-year-old woman divorces her husband when their daughter leaves for college. They sell the house and split the money. At first, she feels excited and liberated. But, as she settles into her new apartment, loneliness sets in. Then she learns that her ex-husband has met someone new and seems happier than ever. Instead of accepting this, even being pleased for him, she grows bitter and angry. Life with him was so boring and miserable, she thinks, and yet he’s the one who ends up happily remarried! And so she sulks, doesn’t go out and sinks into depression.
Bitterness and self-pity must be avoided. If you have emerged from a bad relationship, or from years of physical or mental illness, try not to feel sorry for yourself. Maybe life hasn’t been fair, but most people have grounds for complaint. Regret for the life that should have been is dangerous. The lady in the example feels bitter that she wasted her youth on a man she didn’t love. Someone who suffered terrible paranoia, trauma or social anxiety may also feel bitter about their wasted youth.
The solution is to live in the present. And when people become nostalgic about their youth, don’t let it hurt you. Remember, memory distorts everything. Obviously some people do have a wonderful time, but many remember only the highlights. And everyone’s life sounds more interesting and exciting when they’ve had a glass of wine. These anecdotes are the highlights. No one ever tells an anecdote about the endless stretches of boredom and loneliness!
That said, you shouldn’t be over-optimistic either. When people start again, they imagine everything will improve. The person who finally escapes a loveless marriage assumes the ideal partner will now show up; the person whose youth was lost to trauma or depression assumes that now they will make up for lost time. If you are in your 30s or 40s, you must remember that life is different, and you need to update.
Imagine someone who developed a personality disorder in her early teens. She grew so anxious and paranoid that life became unbearable. To cope, she turned to alcohol and then drugs. Her late teens and twenties were a blur of overdoses, hospital visits and addiction centers, interspersed with periods of loneliness and depression. In her early 30s, she made an effort to overcome these problems. With age, her confidence grew and her anxiety eased. That in turn meant less reliance on drink and drugs. By her late 30s she was clean, with a job and apartment of her own. She turns 40 and feels she has finally reclaimed her life. But now what? She has emerged from a 30-year storm and is picking her way through the rubble. She looks up old friends on Facebook, but they are all married with children. She feels outcast and alone. Who does she connect with? Where does she begin? Above all, what does she want?
Some people go a little crazy when they start their new life, desperate to make up for lost time. But this can be a problem in itself. Someone who married young and then escapes that marriage in early middle-age may be naive. Women, for example, may not realize how many men pretend to want a relationship when in fact they just want sex. Others are naive with money, especially if they have always worked for someone else and now plan to start their own business.
Tips on Starting Over
If you are beginning a new life, the single most important trait is positivity. You can choose whether to approach life with excitement and optimism or fear and gloom. And that choice will determine what kind of life you have. No one is saying it’s easy. If your changed circumstances were forced on you by infidelity, bereavement, redundancy, etc., optimism may be hard to find. At the very least you must accept your new life and make the best of it. And that means really accepting it, deep inside; it does not mean sulkily giving in.
The American mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell used to advise his students to “follow your bliss.” During an interview, he defined this as putting yourself on a track “that has been there all the while, waiting for you.” For Campbell, it meant being totally authentic, pursuing the work or relationship that you truly, deeply want; the one you know is right for you. Be careful though. People are good at deceiving themselves. You may think you are following your bliss when in fact you are following society, or trying to boost your ego. Following your bliss means ignoring what your friends or neighbors approve of and doing what is right for you.
For example, if you take that high-paid job in marketing your parents will be delighted. Your friends and neighbors will also approve. And because it would be the easy option you convince yourself it is what you want. In fact, it will bore you to death. Your real passion is for music, but that is badly paid and insecure. Again, you lie to yourself, deciding that you aren’t that interested in music after all and were never that serious about it.
The same is true of relationships. Your parents want you to marry that handsome, rich doctor you’ve been dating. But, though your life with him would be financially secure, he’s just so dull and insensitive. He never makes you laugh, never interests or excites you, and never sparks any passion. Then your ex contacts you online – that lazy dreamer whose company you loved so much.
Campbell argued that if you follow your bliss “doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” If that sounds suspiciously New Age, don’t worry. You needn’t believe in crystals or tarot cards or guardian angels! His point is that when you live a completely authentic life, you commit to it heart and soul. And when you live a committed, authentic life, you feel happy and positive, which in turn attracts good people. You also focus and channel all your energy and concentration – but not like a nervy, stressed workaholic with a huge mortgage. You focus because you want to, not because you have to.
You may not sell any of your paintings or poems, but that won’t matter. If you paint or write because you want to be famous, then the ego is in charge and you are not living authentically. You should paint, write, play music, go into academia or nursing, re-train as a psychotherapist, or whatever it may be, not because you want money, status and fame but because it inspires and motivates you.
The same is true of relationships. So long as you are guided by the need for love and approval, so long as you look for someone to complete you, you will struggle. Time and again people find that the partner of their dreams, the one who makes them truly happy, turns up when they least expect it. In their 20s or 30s they were terrified of being old and alone. They wanted that one person who’d make everything right, who’d free them from fear and loneliness and complete them. And what happened? Pain and disaster!
And so they gave up, went into therapy and began to deal with past traumas and insecurities. They made peace with the world and grew stronger. At last being single and childless ceased to frighten them. And then what happens? The man or woman of their dreams turns up! Again, this has nothing to do with magic, or destiny, or benevolent spirits. When you were needy and damaged, the most mature and well-rounded people avoided you. Instead, you attract those keen to exploit your vulnerability and control or use you. Now you are strong and stable you attract other strong, stable, mature people.
Try and see your new life as a fresh start. You can choose whether to approach your divorce, change of career, or whatever it may be as a crisis or as an opportunity. Be brave, positive and authentic and doors will open. The following Joseph Campbell quote may serve as a useful motto: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Write that down and keep it by you at all times!