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Mid-Life Crisis: Wisdom from Raymond Carver, Steinbeck, and More

Literature can be good self-prescribed medicine.

Authors from a wide range of traditions have written about incremental loss of self-awareness experienced by some individuals as we age, male and female, across a wide spectrum of epics, settings, and lifestyles. Portrayed in many stories, such loss is not without consequences. Low self esteem, lack of confidence, disillusioned behavior, general irritability, hollow relationships, unhappiness, and depression, are just a few potential consequences.

American fiction writer/poet, Raymond Carver goes so far in his work--e.g. The Father- to suggest that it is possible to thin out one's self until there is hardly anything left, just a "blank," creating a pathology of future blanks and future problems. The "patterns are different," suggests Carver, but results are the same.

Literature (as does Carver), in general, depicts such loss of self-awareness as more common than you might think. It appears in people's lives regardless of monetary, intellectual, or social status. And so it doesn't much matter how smart or wealthy, etc. the individual; such factors alone do not ward off what many have come to call midlife crisis. Philosophically, one might argue that the challenge this crisis generates is part of the "big game." Can we defeat it and come out stronger in the end? I believe so.

Literature can be your laboratory. Writer/professor John Gardner referred to literature as a kind of "laboratory" in which you can rigorously test life--to see what works, what doesn't, and how to use this information to edit your beliefs and actions to create a better more authentic life.

In John Gardner's world, this laboratory function of "stories" is important to your health, as well as to your happiness. And because we are dealing with "fiction," according to Gardner, we can explore things we may not want to fully experience in our own lives-but can benefit from following. Our job, Gardner says, is to use our imagination to figure out (test) what procedures/behaviors work and which don't, excising the good stuff we glean and using it in our own lives.

The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, more or less agreed, echoing Gardner's idea, that stories and storytelling generate a basis for personal beliefs and actions. Campbell even took it a step further, saying that where there is conflict, there is likely the influence of contrasting "stories." So from this matrix, what does loss of self-awareness look like? What could be done (should anything be done?), and perhaps-what couldn't be done in our fight to challenge it?

In this blog, we will explore the writing of Raymond Carver. Then the series will continue into Steinbeck and Dostoevsky.

Throughout Carver's work, you'll find a variety of characters that range from blue collar workers to cardiologists, many of whom become disenfranchised from themselves as they enter middle age. In his short story, Neighbors, for example, one character left to house-sit comically becomes obsessed with imagining himself as his neighbors, for they "must' have a better (which he defines as more exciting) life than he and his wife. Ironically, to most readers, his neighbors' lives will not seem all that interesting-only to Carver's main character (and then, to add to the comedy, to that character's wife as well). By the end of the story, it becomes clear to the reader that anyone's life is more attractive to these people than their own. Also ironically, these characters only know their neighbors one dimensionally at best--by the clothes they wear, the places they go, the beverages they drink etc. Their view of them is as surface and as uncontested as their view of their own lives. And because they leave these perspectives and conclusions unchallenged, they sustain them--and withdraw into their influence on them.

In another Carver story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver's main character, Mel McGinnis, is a cardiologist. Interestingly, a "heart doctor" who "fixes" other people's hearts, yet cannot mend his own. Mel talks and talks, but doesn't seem to listen to his own words. Mel also drinks and drinks and pops pills and pills-"everything there is," he says.

Mel daydreams about wearing a suit of armor and a bee keeper's uniform for protection. He ruminates about an old couple that is almost killed in a car accident and how they have what he (and his friends in the story) don't--love, "true love" of another's being, says Mel.

Carver's story sounds a lot like Plato's Symposium, in which Plato explores the issue spiritual versus physical love and presents the greater significance of spiritual love--again, love of another's being.

Well, Mel wears an "armor" of his own: intoxicants. His talk brushes a picture of when he "was" happy and his life was meaningful. This was "another time," long ago, when he was in a seminary, an important detail now since he is on his second marriage, a cardiologist, and his current wife doesn't really appreciate his chemical armor--which, by the way, has become a blinder to seeing deeper into himself. Mel's rants/pontifications on what "real love is," ends with his passing out in a stupor after too much gin.

Mel is middle-aged. He doesn't much look into who he is, and he hasn't for some time, the measure between that and the life that he is living, or more importantly into what he might do to bring the two closer together. In fact, as he begins (or is provoked to by wife or friends) in the slightest, he goes for more drink--which, in the end, knocks him out--rather than landing him closer to his dreams.

In Mel, Carver presents a character that is disengaged from his inner self and as a result is tortured by it in a chain of pain that spreads from his "heart" throughout his environment. He wants to put more "armor" around himself--so no one can get to him. But this also puts a wall between himself and his solution.

Going back to Gardner and Campbell, Mel never has the epiphany we hope for--but we as readers do!

We see the dysfunction of not taking a good look at who we are inside before making important life-choices and building our bridges from there. Carver shows what results is likely resentment and resentment kills--kills relationships, goals, and happiness.

Literature can be good self-prescribed medicine.

Using stories in this way helps us see the functional coordination of the events that give meaning within the lives of others. It sheds light on the dysfunctional coordination of events as well. Stories help us understand how dysfunction leads to, among other problems, a disassociation with self and, as such, a loss of greater purpose.

The hope is that through seeing and experiencing how fictional events synchronize into meaning for others, we can more intentionally and attentively coordinate our own feelings, behaviors, and strategies to strengthen our own pursuits.

Image: Simon Howden

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