4 things to do when it feels like life is passing you by

You might think life is passing you by, especially in midlife. But trust me, it’s not. Because there is no way your life can pass you by.

Take yesterday, for instance.

Yesterday was a day. Getting up in the morning. Going to bed at night. And everything that happened in between.

A rambling walk in the afternoon. A mesmerizing sunset in the early evening.

Other things too, that didn’t go quite as planned. You could call it a day of stops and starts. Or starts and stops.

The kind of day that can make you wonder if life is passing you by.

Or at the very least, be reminded that life is not fully in your control.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t go to the worries and concerns. And for some reason, right about the time I was watching that sunset, Annie Dillard’s well-known quote about how we spend our days came to mind.

How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days…a mock-up of reason and order…A schedule is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
–Annie Dillard

How we spend our days…those words took me back 10 years ago.

It was a day I remember well, when I excitedly opened a small sketchbook that would soon become my first art journal.

I carefully glued Dillard’s quote onto page one, because I was so sure it held some kind of wisdom and magic I needed at that time in my life.

The wisdom and magic I was looking for was all about getting my act together. 

Back then the possibility of more reason and order seemed profound to me.

You see, I definitely believed I should be living with less chaos and whim. 

Although I didn’t know it then, there was a deep-seated should at the core of my attachment to the quote. I know now that I feared I’d one day look back on my sometimes chaotic, sometimes orderly life and come to the conclusion that I had not spent it well.

In other words, I was afraid I’d become a victim of the dreaded life is passing you by mentality. I thought if I didn’t get my act together I’d miss out on the peace and haven Dillard writes about.

When I look at the quote today my nervous system shifts into alert.

I feel an urgency: it’s not just the days, but the minutes, hours, months, years and decades of life ticking by. So you better get on track soon or else your lifeboat will collapse. Not to mention that your life will pass you by.

Of course, I don’t blame Annie Dillard for any of this because I know that this inner sense of urgency happens during almost any life.

As human beings we experience regret: about time spent, time wasted, time passing. Or regret about things that didn’t work out the way we thought they would.

There’s often a lot to unpack around this.

I’ve been diving into it in my journal. It’s a familiar refrain for many women in midlife and beyond for oh so many reasons, including having the sense that you’ve been blocked in some way from living your own life, or that you’re living someone else’s version of what life should be.

Particularly in middle age you might feel disappointed by what you’ve done with your life or literally believe you didn’t do your life well enough up to this point.  

So maybe I’m lucky that the wreck of time hasn’t drowned me yet, in spite of my times of worrying that it will.

Now, a decade after I pasted the quote in my art journal, I see that it’s not magic.

The words are beautiful and eloquent but they’re not magic.

And the powerful pattern that emerges when I look back isn’t so much about how I stuck to a schedule but more about the experiences I’ve had.

I’ve learned that when you’re living your life, even when it’s imperfect, even when it’s not going according to plan, it has nothing to do with life is passing you by.

It might surprise you to learn I still love the quote.

I do still want more effective routines, rhythms and practices in my life. 

But now I know I’ll be working on that for the rest of my life. I finally get it: it’s not about getting my act together since I’ll always be a work in progress, never complete.

I’ve discovered that in the end, you hold the wisdom and magic inside yourself. It is always available to you. And you can always begin again.

So do these 4 things when it feels like life is passing you by.

Stop. I mean literally stop whatever you’re doing. Look up, look out, see the broader perspective of whatever space you’re in. Breathe, hand to heart. Take the long view.

Release and let go. You don’t have to know how it’s all going to turn out. I’ll let one of my favorite poets tell you more about this: “Lay down your map and compass, and those dog-eared travel guides…Give up the weight of knowing” [even if just for a minute]…-Christine Valters Paintner

Be kind to yourself. Say self-compassionate words. Here’s more wisdom from another fave poet: “We see you, see ourselves and know that we must take the utmost care and kindness in all things”…-Joy Harjo

Begin Again. I know it’s not easy, but no matter how many times you need to begin again, it in no way diminishes your worth or your goodness. Nor does it mean that life is passing you by.

Maybe, in the end, this is the thing: how you spend your days is simply about how you spend your days.

A series of days, months, even years might not have much to do with how you’ve spent your life. Furthermore, it likely has nothing to do with your life passing you by.

And while the words in a quote may perfectly fall into place, the pieces of your life rarely do.

In fact, I’m considering the idea that one rambling walk and one mesmerizing sunset can steady the lifeboat and bring you back to peace even in the midst of a chaotic day.

Even in the midst of a chaotic year.