Friday, August 19, 2016

Beware the Cosmic Light Bulb

We say the Third Third is the one without a parent, without a boss; it’s the Third we get to define for ourselves. But there’s a certain peril in not working in an office, not having the hustle and bustle of externally-mandated to-dos. Not having to do things because someone else or some institution wants them, having lots of alone time, sometimes unencumbered time. The same thing applies with the empty nest: no kid responsibilities.

Before, my roles and responsibilities – daughter, student, employee, wife, mother – defined a lot of my being in the world. In my Third Third, I define myself.

The peril is self-centeredness. I’m not sure that’s the right word. Being self-absorbed? Edgar Bronfman calls it “incessant self-focus on my own problems and issues” in his recent book. In college, we called it being the Cosmic Light Bulb.
Yes, I volunteer and I do things for other people, but I’m the one in charge of deciding what I do. I’m autonomous, and the dictionary says that’s “self-governing; independent; subject to its own laws only.” Sure, I think independence is a good thing, and it’s probably a cornerstone of my personality, but every now and then, I see the pitfalls in the available solitude and autonomy of my Third Third. If I’m not being vigilant, my world is About Me.
Even if I regularly examine my life (and the philosopher in me does it all the time), the autonomy of my Third Third often means that’s happening in isolation. While I may be a constant critic of myself, I’m still a one-sided critic. Sometimes that’s not fair to me, and sometimes that’s not fair to everyone else. In my own world, in the land of I-decide-what-I-want, I can be an autocrat.

It happens gradually. I look at the world and stop noticing that I’m looking through Barbara-colored glasses. And then someone plays Copernicus to that worldview; they see things differently, want different things. Suddenly, the universe becomes multi-dimensional – rotating around the sun, not around me – and from that other perspective, it makes sense. A different sense, but still sense.
If I’m lucky, that’s illuminating and enriching, and I re-orient. I appreciate the different sides to the universe, the variety of wants and desires, hopes and viewpoints of other people. It’s a tremendous feeling of social connection with a spirit of compromise. But if I’m unlucky, I’ve already focused on Me, disparaged a few feelings, overruled a few choices, pushed too hard. Without even noticing.

Okay, this isn’t unique to our Third Thirds. The land of About Me isn’t restricted to any age group. Maybe we thought by the time we reached our Third Thirds we’d be better – resolutely empathetic, kind, and generous. (sigh) Sometimes I still need a smack to the head to reflect, reconsider, and make right with other people. I still make resolutions to do better. I worry that a blog is the very epitome of self-absorption.

There’s a fine balance between working to define ourselves without our old roles and thinking too much about ourselves. A fine line between autonomy and pushiness. If life is a constant story of error, correction, and resolution to do better, I guess there’s more of the same in my Third Third. Yup.


  1. Another excellent piece! Thank you. This may seem to you to be about yourself, but by sharing it you have made it about much more.

    1. Thank you. I really sweated over this, almost left it on the drawing board. Whew, this is a relief.


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