As I See It: Midlife With Crisis
July 7, 2014 Victor Rozek
If you want to screw up your life, there’s nothing like a Midlife Crisis to provide handy justification. The affair with the younger woman, followed by spending quality time with the wife’s attorney; the outlandish purchase, after which your kid discovers she won’t be going to Stanford after all; and the cosmetic surgery that makes your face unresponsive to human emotion. These are some of the ingenious ways we’ve developed to cope with the unavoidable process of aging.
Having said that, sometimes a properly managed Midlife Crisis can save your life. But more on that later.
The Midlife Crisis is something we invented after discovering that life didn’t unfold exactly as we would have wished. Too much sacrifice, too much obligation, too much empty work. Not enough excitement, not enough satisfaction, not enough fulfilment, not enough time to do what we really wanted.
And then there’s that whole aging thing. Fear that the best years are behind us, and a panicked urgency to find a way to recapture them–if only for a moment. Within the Midlife Crisis lies the dread of asking, “What’s next?” Because the answer is: more of the same, followed shortly thereafter by the eternal dirt nap–a prospect as alluring as a vacation in Ukraine.
The Midlife Crisis is a relatively modern phenomenon and it comes of having had choices and not exercising them. More specifically, it is born of ignoring multiple choice points each of which would have altered the trajectory of our lives had they not been denied. In that sense the Midlife Crisis is a kind of mourning for the paths not taken, the possibilities lost. One can hardly imagine a Medieval peasant lamenting that his life was less than idyllic because he didn’t have a fast horse or never explored the neighboring shire. Without choice there is no crisis because there is no alternative.
Here are some classic signs that indicate you’re in the full throes of a Midlife Crisis.
Fortunately, for most people, assuaging midlife angst has a purchasable solution. If life is passing you by, you’ll need something really fast to catch it. Harley-Davidson has developed an entire business model predicated on supplying middle-aged fat guys with their Easy Rider fantasies. Ferrari has a similar business plan but it’s geared more toward oil-rich Arabs.
If overpriced vehicles aren’t your fantasy, there are boats, flat screens the size of North Dakota, home makeovers, spa memberships, and month-long stays at an Indian ashram where you can learn to renounce vanity and worldly possessions for only $6,999 plus airfare.
Toys notwithstanding, midlife can be a time of stress, reflection, and uncertainty. And, like any animal facing an acute stress situation, we respond by either Fleeing, Fighting, or Freezing. Freezing is the least expensive, least effective, and most often applied remedy. It basically means doing nothing and soldiering-on with the discomfort. But when discomfort is ignored, it gets louder and eventually turns into pain. Then, unwanted behaviors leak out: self medicating; blaming your partner for your discontent; becoming angry and sullen.
Those who flee, typically discard something (or someone). They leave a job, change careers, dump a relationship. Some actually jettison habits or behaviors that no longer serve them, but that level of self-reflection is as rare as clean air in Beijing. Women who flee their marriage thinking they can do better often find that the only men eager to date them are 20 years their seniors. Men who abandon their families often find themselves living in crummy little apartments better suited to high school dropouts.
Those who choose to fight the realities of midlife, typically do so with acquisition or self-improvement. They want to look better and feel better, and failing that, they want new toys. It’s all pretty harmless, even healthy, as it relieves a mounting pressure that might otherwise cause harm. What we do to make ourselves feel better becomes a symbolic substitute for what might have been. And since we can’t retrieve the past, perhaps that’s the next best thing.
Sometimes, however, major change is in order. Toxic relationships, dead-end jobs, intolerable living conditions; midlife offers a “last chance” opportunity to remedy mistakes of the past. It is a time that amplifies the relentless ticking of the clock. It reminds us that at some point a lack of skill or a lack of energy will severely limit our remaining choices. Unhappiness and anxiety are messengers ignored at our peril. Sometimes a Midlife Crisis is nature’s reminder that a long shot at happiness is better than no shot at all.