I had a long chat with an Ethics professor on Monday. I’ve wanted to talk to someone who understands ethics and morality for *years* because of the Sex Surge. Are affairs moral or ethical? How do we make sense of them in American culture when other cultures are more tolerant of them? Can affairs ever be a good decision? (If you don’t have the Sex Surge- keep reading, this will get useful, I promise.)
The woman I talked with, Dr. Ellen Stansell of Texas State University (who also writes about appropriation in yoga), helped me not necessarily answer these questions, but she gave me ways to look at them differently. And those perspectives apply to a lot about mid-life.
One of the things she talked about was the Judeo-Christian values that underly American culture (and much of Western culture) is a rules based ethical system; we must follow the rules in order to be seen as ‘good.’ And, in fact, the rules very clearly mark out what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – primarily based on the Ten Commandments of the Bible. But the thing is – and I think many of us know this already but Dr. Stansell gave me the words to be clearer about it – life is a fuck ton more complex than ‘good’ and ‘bad.’
A rules-based ethical system is an immature system. It only offers two options for most problems, and those options must never mix.
A person is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (and we get surprised when someone we thought was ‘good’ turns out to have ‘bad’ pieces in them).
A relationship is either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
A job is either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
This kind of judgment doesn’t leave room for reality– that people are both good and bad, that relationships contain both good and bad aspects, that jobs have both good and bad days. The truth about humanity is that we are both good and bad, in different percentages, at different times, and in different situations. Our ethical system should reflect that, but it doesn’t.
Rules based ethical systems might make things simpler- the rules are clear, follow them and you’ll do well (supposedly) – but they really don’t help us make complex decisions, or address complex situations, which is what most of us are dealing with at mid-life.
We need new ways to look at things at mid-life.
What do we need then? A more dynamic ethical sytem. One that recognizes we are all growing and changing and learning as we go along in life. Something that is more inclusive of the complexities of life. We need an ethical system that asks things like:
why am I doing this? and what purpose does it serve?
does this decision/action/person/job/idea move me towards thriving?
what is the whole picture showing me?
if I look beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ what do I see here?
am I handling this skillfully?
how can I avoid the most harm?
what needs to be let go of? what needs to be nurtured?
what do I know about this from my own experience? what do I need to learn?
who do I want to be in this situation/relationship/job/etc?
As I have aged, and hopefully matured, what I know is that things are very often complicated. Life’s questions are very often far beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad.’
Affairs sometimes serve a useful purpose.
Sometimes we stay at a not-particularly-fun job because it helps us care for an aging parent or put a beloved child through school – it helps us thrive by letting us care for our people.
Sometimes we don’t handle a discussion skillfully, but this doesn’t mean we are ‘bad.’
Sometimes the best choice is the one that doesn’t avoid harm all together, but does the least harm.
Sometimes we have to sort the pieces of our life many times to see how they fit together- and that is not ‘bad’ or ‘good,’ it just is.
And we need a way of looking at Life and behavior that accepts all this.
So what does this have to do with you, your hormones, your Sex Surge, your mid-life conundrums? A few things.
First, it’s okay if you’re both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in different mixes at different times. You’re a complex lady person; it’s okay to be complex. Sometimes affairs help us figure something out. Sometimes (often) divorce is good. If we hold a different ethical system inside of us, we don’t have to sit there and wonder if we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ if we do or don’t do something; we can look at it from a much wider, truer perspective.
Second, it’s okay if you’re not ‘living your best life’ because you have responsibilities or are just trying to keep it all together. Keeping it together is good enough. (I will mention that ‘keeping it together’ is balanced by the skill of “losing one’s shit on ocassion.”)
Third, you do not have to look at your situation, your Sex Surge, your hormones, your marital situation, or whatever in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t. Try looking at the complexity of what’s really there, what’s really happening- because that’s where the truth is. And, at mid-life, I don’t think we really have time for anything but the truth anymore.