The Midlife Crisis is a great subject for jokes, or at least embarassing anecdotes. Joe is a 45 year old accountant, married for 18 years to Joan, with two kids in middle school. Seemingly out of the blue, he gets involved with a 30 year old sales associate at work. Everyone is devastated. Will he still be accepted as a boy scout leader? Is he even interested? Meanwhile, Betty was active in the PTA all through the elementary school years of her two eldest; but now with a third child still in fifth grade, all she seems to think about is yoga. Then there’s Brian, who was a rising star at work for a dozen years. After he made it to Vice President, something changed. He seemed to just run out of steam. Now it seems like he is just going through the motions. What’s going on with these people? Is there something wrong with them? Is there something wrong with our world that makes them this way?
In fact, these people are just typical and familiar examples of many perfectly normal people in our society. They are going through something that is inevitable in light of where they have been. Within each of us is a wide range of aptitudes, interests and talents. But each person grows up in a specific environment, with parents or other adult caregivers and brothers, sisters and other peers. The teenage years set us on a particular path, hopefully drawing on at least some of our talents and interests. Most young adults then get involved in an intimate partnership and/or start a career. So they get a bit narrower as they do what is necessary to succeed in their work and family life. They might raise children, pursue success at work, get involved in sports or other cultural activities and enjoy life with friends. As they do all this, some talents, skills, personality characteristics and interests are helpful and get developed. But for most people, this progressive deepening driven by the demands of life doesn’t last forever. One way or another it comes to an end, or it gradually changes. Kids grow up, careers reach a peak or even come to an end, friends move on. We also experience internal changes — we may feel that we have exhausted certain interests, our bodies no longer want to engage in certain activities, and we feel that some of our needs are not being met. We may experience deep within us a feeling that some skill or interest has been neglected; we may look at the changing demands of our environment, our relationships or our work, and see that the skills and personality attributes that made for great success in our twenties are not a good match for our changing life. To put it bluntly, we feel like we really need a change. Welcome to the midlife crisis!
Unless we are really attentive and thoughtful about what is going on, our midlife crisis is likely to be managed by those big external forces that try to run all of our lives all of the time. In other words, advertisers and pop culture are ready to tell you what to do. So, the most obvious thing to do when we experience a crisis is to GO SHOPPING! This leads straight into the jokes about buying a sports car as a sure sign of midlife crisis. If we are a bit less materialistic, and a bit more feeling oriented, we don’t go shopping for a “thing”…. we shop for a person instead. In other words, we have an AFFAIR! Or, if we are even less materialistic and more feeling oriented, we go a step “higher” and get spiritual instead — we take up religion or some kind of spiritual practice. At the other extreme are the folks who think of themselves as wise or practical; they see through the big joke of the midlife crisis — they decide they aren’t going to get sucked in. Instead, they decide that they are just fine the way they are. They decide to call whatever they have achieved in relationships, career or religion by the new word “wisdom” and hang onto it for dear life as long as it may last — 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years if necessary! That takes a lot of determination, a lot of refusal to evolve; so these folks are pretty rigid by the time they make it to old age. As for the others, those who take a risk with their midlife crisis change for better or for worse. But at least they expand their horizons one way or another.
Our individualistic culture is far from the tribal cultures in which our species evolved. Furthermore, we live longer than was typical throughout the many thousands of years of human history. It is rare that our 40 and 50 year olds can find a readily available new role where they can develop neglected skills or neglected sides of their personalities. It is rare that our 60 and 70 year olds have been the beneficiaries of that progressive maturation that develops revered elders, or that they even have access to such a role. So, the experience of midlife as a crisis is perhaps inevitable. For almost all of us, the second half of life is different from the first half. This isn’t a new thing in itself; it has been built into traditional cultures for thousands of years. The modern complication is that our culture isn’t set up to adapt to this timeless reality. So we have the experience of crisis, the drive for artificial satisfactions for this sense of need, and endless jokes that discourage anyone from honestly facing the fact that they are experiencing a genuine personal challenge. The worst we can do is pretend it isn’t real or resort to some form of consumption that distracts us from the real purpose of the crisis we are feeling.
The stay-at-home mom whose children are almost grown really does need to face the fact that her life must adapt to different priorities; the guy who has been married for 20 years needs to address the fact that his expectation of a sexual partner needs to evolve beyond that of a fashion model; the person for whom the forms of religious practice suddenly seem empty needs to pursue unmet spiritual needs; the person whose successful career is no longer inspiring must look within to face those needs for achievement that have been neglected; the person who recognizes that they have become much more adept at knowing what they think than how they feel needs to ask themself whether there are feelings they are avoiding…. and on and on. The midlife crisis is universal — we just vary a lot in our recognition of its reality. Even more importantly, the midlife crisis is very personal — each and every one of us experiences exactly the crisis we need, based on who we are, where we are and our personal history. How we handle our midlife crisis will determine the quality of all the remaining years of our lives. It is a personal imperative that we neglect at our peril.