Midlife: Does It Have to Be a Crisis?
Middle age can be tricky but there is hope.
Posted April 13, 2019
While many of us reject the clichés regarding middle age, enough of us have seen people flame out in their forties to know it’s a real thing. While few buy the proverbial red sports car there is no doubt that there is a biological element to the challenge of this period of life. By our forties and fifties there is a recognition that soon there will be more time behind us than ahead. Connected to this is the idea that we may not have fulfilled the goals we set out to achieve in our twenties. This realization can trigger a series of reactions that shade into panic. But does it have to play out like this? Is there another way to approach this challenging passage?
A number of features of middle age can be exacerbated if we have been living life unreflectively. But this is an often culturally accepted mode. As we have written in previous posts, our culture encourages being in a constant rush and creates a seemingly perpetual state of feeling busy and time pressed. As a result, for many there is little time set aside for self-reflection. Running through our many life tasks and attending to the outer world may have taken up much of our time. Phillips (2012) refers to this as the “phobia of self-knowledge” (36). If this tendency to avoid deeper questions goes on for years at a time it is no surprise that in midlife all that has been ignored may come knocking. This realization may be set off by the death or illness of someone close that irrefutably shows the passage of time and finiteness of life.
Another aspect of midlife that can present a challenge is that we have come to the end of our prescribed life script, for good or ill. It seems strange, but even if we have achieved what we set out to – which seems like a good thing – the result can be a feeling of emptiness. This points to one of the shifts that has to take place at this stage of life: In youth there may be a certain amount of natural buoyancy and hopefulness that leads us into new adventures and gives us the courage to create our life. Many of us can look back and wonder where all that confidence came from. There was a sense of an endless time horizon which allows for mistakes and recovery. This relationship to time starts to change as we pass 40.
As with the passage into adulthood, the transition into midlife requires attention. Unlike in more traditional societies where through rites of passage we go from “one defined position to another that is equally well defined,” in the West the next stage can seem unclear (van Gennep 3). And in a youth-fixated culture the next step can seem like one that points only to decline and obsolescence. Certainly if one’s identity has been anchored in physical appearance, midlife can seem like a losing game played against the forces of nature.
But is there a different way to look at this process? In order to find an alternative model it can be helpful to look at the lessons drawn from our cultural past. Thomas Moore devotes a chapter of his book, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, to the symbolism of the planet Saturn. Within the astrological metaphorical system, Saturn is associated with age, limitation, depth, and seriousness—the exact opposite of the North American obsession with eternal youth and the feeling of unlimited possibility.
The counsel of Saturn is to embrace what the passage of time offers and allow ourselves to deepen and take our own lives seriously. The reflection that goes along with this process can include thinking about the deeper meaning and patterns within one’s own life. These can only be seen in retrospect. From this point of view we can accept that each stage of life has a different feel and requires a different attitude. It is not appropriate to cling to outmoded approaches to life or to fall into the temptation to regress. By middle age we have made key life choices and these have shaped and created our lives.
To attempt to keep all doors open and retain the lightness of youth can lead to the puer aeternus complex discussed in an earlier post. It is this approach that can lead to the examples everyone has seen in midlife in which an the individual simply attempts to return to an adolescent approach to life – carefree, light, and focused on the self. And for many of us there is a sympathy with this because who doesn’t dream of escape from drudgery now and again? But it is not appropriate and it simply doesn’t work. Something else is asked of us at this juncture.
But what is that? Again we need to look at traditional cultures that require that at this age we act as mentors for those younger than ourselves, and that we think of the good of whole and the legacy of our actions. But also that, at a more humble level, we accept that in life there are limitations and we can’t always get what we want—and sometimes that is a good thing. Doing this gives of a weight one’s character and personality that is easily recognizable by others. Most of us hopefully know someone who inhabits this stage of life with grace and gravitas.
Lest this all sound too grim, midlife in western culture also offers the possibility of re-invention or at least rethinking of one’s life and goals. It can be a time to shift focus and look at aspects of the self that have been neglected due to the many pressing commitments that make up an adult life. From this point of view this stage of life is as much an adventure and the earlier one. We will turn to this process in our next post.
Thomas Moore 1996. The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. New York: HarperPerennial
Adam Phillips 2012. Missing Out. In Praise of the Unlived Life. New York: Picador.
van Gennep, Arnold. 1960. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, First published 1909.