Does Anyone Really Get A Soft Ride?

By Michele Willens

As we speak, a 40-year old woman in Los Angeles named Catherine is close to breaking up her family. She was recently downsized out of her job and is having serious in-law issues. Her husband, readying to take their two children on a trip with his parents, told me, “Basically, Catherine has never faced a real crisis. She always did well in school, never has been without a boyfriend, and always got the jobs she wanted. She had it all, but maybe because of that, she’s now out of control.”

We all meet or see people about whom we think, ‘I bet they never suffered insecurity and angst as they made their way from pimply adolescence to — and perhaps through — adulthood.’ I recall living next door to Christie Brinkley’s parents years ago, and watching their impossibly gorgeous 20-something daughter sport different bikinis every day. Drooling, shapeless, and invisible, I imagined a future of doors opening for that luscious blonde. (What I did not foresee were four tabloid divorces)

“In our profession, it is sometimes called ‘the soft ride,’ says New York psychiatrist Anna Fels. “We over-idealize the paths of other people, and we live in a culture where we are taught to expect perfect lives. So adversity too often feels shameful and personal.” The imperfect among us have come to expect, and hopefully negotiate, the ups and downs. For the soft riders, adversity may feel shameful in more complicated ways. Being sixty-something can be trying for any woman: for Christie Brinkley, perhaps even more so.

She is, of course, an extreme ‘model’ of a perceived soft rider: the person who initially earns our envy, but ultimately deserves our sympathy. “One needs to learn sturdiness early to regulate one’s self, “ warns New York psychiatrist and author (“Scary Old Sex”) Dr. Arlene Heyman, “because eventually, there will be blows.” After all, regardless of financial advantages, social skills, connections, and fortunate genetics, we all meet at the great equalizers: dying parents, unexpected illnesses, freak accidents. You may one day be collateral damage of self-sabotaging family members, (see: Allison Williams) or yourself a self-sabotager. (See: Jonah Lehrer) The question isn’t so much ‘does anyone really have a soft ride’ as ‘should anyone even want one’?

When this theme is on your mind, it shows up in unexpected places. While reading the poplar new novel, “A Gentleman In Moscow,” this passage comes from the pen of author Amor Towles: “When one experiences a profound setback in the course of an enviable life, one has a variety of options: Spurred by shame, one may attempt to hide all evidence of the change in one’s circumstances; In a state of self-pity, one may retreat from the world in which one has been blessed to live; Or one may simply join the Confederacy of the Humbled.” Watching an off-Broadway revival of the 1953 play, “A Day By the Sea,” I hear the middle aged man at its center muse, “It’s a misfortune to be a success at 21. What did I suppose I’d become?”

The good news: While confronting the tough stuff in the early years may mar an unblemished picture, it can prove advantageous down the road. “Some anxiety is good for growth, no matter what age,” says Los Angeles clinical psychologist Joan Willens. (No relation) “The young person with the soft ride, who has so much going his or her way, has less opportunity to learn recovery, self-regulatory, and self- soothing skills, all necessary when facing disappointment or failure in the future.”

How we are raised — and how we do our raising — clearly enters into the equation. Dr. Heyman claims, “If you have solid, reliable parents, or even one solid parent, the world can seem more benign, and help you weather later bumps.” Our son’s relatively soft ride took a sudden detour in college, and while I wouldn’t wish that (blessedly) temporary pain on anyone, I do believe he emerged stronger and more self-aware. I like to think he was buttressed by years of unconditional support.

My friend Emma still feels some regret that she pushed her son — known in the family as “the one who didn’t go to Harvard” — to work harder to achieve as much as his superstar sisters. Last year, one of those siblings was dismissed from a coveted job and subsequently melted into a puddle of shattered confidence. “We all watched stunned and almost bemused,” says Emma, who recalls her son saying that if his sister had played sports, she might have been prepared for occasionally getting benched.

Bonnie, another dear friend, is still luminous as she hovers near the 70 mark. Grown men recall their younger selves following her home after school, and when a wealthy admirer saw her at 16, he vowed to marry her. (He did, they had two children, later divorced but stayed close) Bonnie got into TV, worked hard, and remained as beautiful inside as out. She admits that her first real jolt came when her current husband had a heart operation. Today, that sense of fragility remains, particularly as aging issues take hold. “I never felt tested before, but I do today, because I live with life’s unpredictability and I fear loss each and every day,” she says. Would her skin be thicker if there had been more tests early on?

Experts point out that one’s disposition is a key ingredient, both in avoiding the normal travails that can seem so threatening at a young age, and managing those that even the soft riders may eventually face: “One of the elements that we often overlook is temperament,” says Dr. Fels, “which turns out to have a huge impact on quality of life and resilience. Not to mention that people with sunny outgoing personalities get more positive feedback from infancy on.”

Melinda Diner, a 66-year old living in California’s San Fernando Valley, knows of sunny smiling faces. She recently started posting her 7th grade diary on Facebook, which has captured — and stunned — former classmates, who remember her as Prom Queen just a few years later. “Dear Diary,” she wrote, “I sure hope I’m cute when I’m older, If not, I’ll be quite depressed. School is a bore, nothing ever happens. (To me, that is) I think I’m going to die. Nobody in my crowd likes me anymore.”

Diner has not had the soft ride her classmates predicted. There was a divorce and two bouts of breast cancer. (Ironic, as many of her diary entries deal with her flat chest) Yet, she remains positive — one can imagine her as the ‘Miss Personality’ she was voted — but that is mostly due to relief from finally getting past the girl she was thought to be. “I was clueless how my peers saw me,” she says. “Meanwhile I was falling apart. It wasn’t until I was much older that I stopped doing the Melinda Diner Show.”

That pressure to keep up the façade, is its own burden, and not merely because the soft rider may be hiding inner doubts and demons. “The issues surrounding the perception of others depends on the person’s vulnerability,” says psychologist Willens, “of letting others define his or her self-esteem. Image maintenance can become a full time job.”

This is not a gender issue, though the physical genetics tend to affect women more. (Where we once stressed over bra size, now we fight aging faces) But the “Golden Boy” syndrome is nothing to be sneezed at. There was a palpable wave of jealousy over the Harvard class of 1971 when a student named Richard had his first book published. As he moved on in life, not only were there a series of short- lived jobs and disappointing work, he could not sustain marriages as the wives became more successful. Rejection and criticism became almost unbearable.

Arthur Drooker, a photographer and author now in his early 60s, has had a relatively soft ride himself: tony private school in Riverdale, New York, Ivy League college, and a good (if late in life) marriage. But his memories of softer riders remain close to the surface. “There was one boy I idolized in high school,” recalls Drooker. “He was a year ahead of me and whenever we’d chat, I’d think, ‘Doug talked to me’! Drooker was shocked when he learned that Doug committed suicide while in grad school at Harvard.

Tommy Alter, in his mid-twenties, is the envy of many of his peers, working at HBO in Los Angeles. His growing up, he insists, was anything but exceptional and he claims that being exposed to other worlds proved his saving perspective. “I think working on the south side of Chicago for awhile, when I was in high school, was really beneficial,” says Alter. “It taught me that this is a big country and that most accolades, while nice, are ultimately sort of meaningless.’

This is not about the prescience of Bob Dylan’s words. (“The loser now will be later to win.”) However, there is some satisfaction in discovering that those who had those magical early years may have peaked or stalled, while others went on to more textured existences. I eventually found the nerve to attend one school reunion, the My high school career had been non-existent, at best, so imagine my surprise when someone exclaimed, “Here is the second most famous person in our class!” (For the record, the first was a “Star Trek” actor named Armin Shimerman) From that moment on, people pretty much went to their old corners: the former student body president instinctively grabbing the microphone, while I tried to get Kris and Missy to smile at me.

The unexceptional lives led by most of us are worth examining, but hopefully not stressing over. “When our expectations don’t conform to our capabilities, we are going to feel conflicted and sometimes depressed,” says writer James Atlas. I find that seeing life as a series of moments (the good ones) helps lessen unease over what could be considered an overall portfolio of mediocrity. Simultaneously, it helps you perceive another’s seemingly easier path with less longing and more understanding. “Don’t compare your insides with someone else’s outside,” warns Dr. Heyman. “It’s illusory and as much a denigration of yourself as an idealization of the other person.”

Those who ride the roller coaster may not only better navigate the occasional bumps to the bottom, but more enjoy the rises to the top. “People who had to face challenges early in life are better prepared for later ones, and also more appreciative when things are going well,” says New York psychologist Vivian Diller, Ph.d. “Those who appear to have a soft landing at midlife may have successfully resolved those challenges by their 50s and 60s. As a result, they know how to leave behind what doesn’t matter and focus on what does. Now they can create, if not a soft ride, a good life.”

Fasten your seat belts.

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