By Geoffrey Geddes
I grew up in the sixties, an only child raised by a single mother. Mom loved me and did her best to protect and instruct me. But divorce, fear, and a glass ceiling prompted her to frequently relocate our mini-family, perpetually pursuing a situational reboot. I played the new kid in school seven times between fourth grade and my high school graduation: ever the uncomfortable outsider, never sure of the rules.
For more than 50 years I pretended at life. I spent much of my time focused on worries and regrets, paying little attention to my present moments. Don’t cry for me; I also enjoyed a good share of love and laughter. Still, the preponderant pain of life confused me. Why did I have so few friends? How had I become so fat? Why did I drop out of college? Why did my wife leave me? How did I end up in such a unsatisfying job? Where is the joy? What is joy?
Again, my life has been anything but tragic. I raised three children to exemplary adulthood – each one a wonderful amalgam of the best parts of their mother and me. I returned to school part-time and earned a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies (for financial reasons) and a master’s degree in humanities (for personal satisfaction). And, at age 57, I shed 165 pounds and achieved a “normal” weight for the first time in over 30 years. Things are, most assuredly, looking up.
Everyone grows older; not everyone grows wiser. Yet, given a sufficiently open mind, a few sage guides, and a bit of luck, longevity will sometimes yield a few helpful lessons. I spent much of my first half-century thoughtlessly reacting to my circumstances and my self-centered impulses. But I also occasionally looked up from my reflexive grind to inquire and reflect, and to listen to the precious mentors that fortune placed along my path. And, sure enough, I learned a few lessons that might be worth sharing.
For instance, I learned that, since we have no control over our original physical or social context, bemoaning our initial lot is futile. Neither do we have much control over our early conditioning: Mom is an alcoholic or a princess; Dad is a carpenter or an astronaut; or Miss Marian finds us on the library steps. Only when we begin to mature might we impact our story.
I also learned that humans choose their fate. Context and early conditioning often impose formidable obstacles that can foil expectations and decimate dreams. Yet, regardless of the nature and abundance of those challenges, effective living remains a product of choice. Once mature and relatively free from prepubescent dependency, we choose to be sad or happy, we choose to be sick or well, we choose to be fat or thin, and we choose to live authentically and gratefully or to petulantly mark time until death.
I also learned (or perhaps decided) that late is definitely preferable to never. I desire to learn; I desire to write; I desire to teach and counsel – to help people meet challenges similar to my own; I desire to live and work in harmony with my best self, rather than in service to my relief-seeking self. In a traditional hero’s journey, the hero might initially refuse the call to adventure, which is essentially a call to live authentically and fully. In myth, the refusal serves to highlight character flaws and heighten dramatic tension. In life, the hero is typically a mal-conditioned Late Bloomer like me, and a delay merely delays. The time, I think, is now. In truth, the time is always now; no better time exists to take up the reigns of your life and commit to the ride. Why, then, do people delay? More importantly, why (and how) do they finally begin?
As part of my recovery from compulsive overeating (or, perhaps more precisely, “binge eating disorder,” since the DSM has recently legitimized my ailment), I participated in Overeaters Anonymous, a twelve-step program based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. The twelve-step approach to recovery provides an unexpectedly effective method of behavioral reconditioning. While I question whether a supernatural deity inspired Bill W. to found AA, I have no doubt that genetics, upbringing, experience, and a few helpful teachers equipped him with extraordinary insight into human behavior and the addict’s predicament.
Despite its biblical insinuations to the contrary, a twelve-step program depends more on individual choice, personal accountability, and human assistance than on abdicating responsibility to a supernatural parent. More precisely, success in the program requires making a sincere and informed choice to change (i.e., recondition) your maladaptive behavior by (1) honestly and completely accepting the reality and severity of your affliction and (2) seeking and accepting help from others in order to learn how to recover. Most sufferers I’ve encountered at meetings have “tried everything” and consider the program their “last chance” – an attitude that program veterans refer to as “hitting your bottom.” At your bottom, the fuse has burned away and choosing to recover is no longer a matter of self-improvement. At your bottom, if you choose recovery you live, if you choose the bottle or the needle or the donut (i.e., refuse the call) you die.
In many cases, a person who suffers from a severe addiction or compulsion wakes in the morning and decides, quite sincerely, to recover, only to relapse by evening. Living in a perpetual cycle of resolve and relapse creates desperation, which erodes confidence and personal power. Sufferers caught in such a cycle need help; they need guidance; they need support from outside of their emotional spiral – support that is both compassionate and objective. Twelve step programs, as well as therapists, counselors, mentors, and good friends, can often provide the information and support a person needs to interrupt an addiction cycle long enough to recondition destructive behaviors and begin to live a healthier, more effective life.
The quest to understand the nature of self-sabotage and behavioral change has kept psychologists busy since Aristotle first pondered our motivational appetites. I hope someday to join the ranks of the very best psycho-spelunkers and, by investigating and practicing and sharing myself with others, contribute to our collective understanding, growth, and wellbeing. This blog is an important step along that journey.
Googlers often attribute to novelist George Elliot (nee Mary Anne Evans) the provocative quote “it’s never too late to be who you might have been.” Not only is it unlikely that Ms. Evans would have agreed with such a sentiment, let alone have recorded it for posterity with such brevity, the notion is patently untrue. Each moment is pregnant with incalculable possibility, to be sure. But the choices we make from moment to moment determine our unique life story and create innumerable theoretical persons we might have been had we chosen differently; each choice precludes as many outcomes as it facilitates.
Nevertheless, the ability to recondition maladaptive behavior and learn how to live more effectively persists in humans until death. “It’s never too late” may sound hollow and overly optimistic; but “better late than never” has a nice ring to it. As I continue my life’s journey, I hope to frequently lob a compassionate gauntlet to all would-be Late Bloomers, challenging them to break through the crust of deleterious conditioning and bask in the light of authentic living, even for a moment. Blooming late often requires overcoming defective conditioning, and obstructive cultural pressures, enemies both internal and external. Blooming late requires heroic effort, but it’s worth the fight.
Here’s to Late Bloomers of every stripe. May you bloom large, smile often, and bask in life’s light the rest of your days.