My friend Peter emailed me after reading a recent opinion piece by David Brooks about the so-called midlife crisis. “The image of midlife as a time of crisis is almost the opposite of what this period of life is really about,” Peter wrote.
I can’t agree enough.
Midlife can be a bit disorienting and scary from time to time, but it is actually a right-on-schedule period of reckoning. It’s the right time to pursue a set of evaluations and decisions that can lead to new opportunities and new vitality without trashing everything that has gone before.
Asking “Who am I?” is an essential question, no matter what your age. When you’re young, seeking that answer drives the process of growing up. That striving will include successful choices and failed ones from which we learn – provided we are paying attention.
As we mature, the question “Who am I?” migrates to the more complex, nuanced “Who have I become?” and “Who would I like (and need) to be in the future?” Seeking those answers, and acting on them, is also part of maturing.
But why do people think that maturing has a end-date? We should be evolving all the time.
I think so many people dread aging because they see it as a losing battle of hanging onto their youthfulness. For them, even in their 40s and 50s, their self-image is built on their much younger identities. At midlife they hang on in preparation for additional hanging on even more grimly later in life. They feel trapped, or stuck, unwilling to redefine themselves as anything other than their default identity, which is probably decades old and outworn.
In fairness to them, our society primarily works on a success/failure model, and who wants, at midlife, to still be failing sometimes? Especially since our society gives kids permission to make mistakes and learn from them but withdraws that permission, at home and at work, somewhere around age 40. We’ve internalized the idea that we should already have it all together by 45, and believe we should already know the answers. But why are we abiding by such inflexible rules for ourselves and others? What’s wrong with continually assessing and adjusting our lives as we gain experience and, presumably, wisdom?
There are various times in our lives when we tend to act out and test the rules with bad behavior. One is the “terrible twos” when NO! is the pivotal word. Another is the teenage years, complete with raging hormones and rebellion. A third is the early part of midlife when we’re often compelled to rock the boat again. As wise parents we set limits on our children’s acting out, understanding that it’s a normal phase that needs be done safely. How is it, then, that we arrive at midlife and all kinds of bad behavior are somehow excused, or justified, by claiming a crisis?
Call it what it is: adult acting out. “Midlife crisis” is an umbrella excuse for all kinds of trouble, as in, “It wasn’t my fault. I was having a crisis!”
I say baloney. We’d be much better off if we gave ourselves permission to be at an uncomfortable midlife crossroads rather than distracting ourselves, and avoiding, by behaving badly. Expecially if it’s an unhealthy combination of short-term pleasure and behaving badly.
Doing the identity work at this point in our lives, re-evaluating our marriages, careers, friends, interests and goals, is hard. Wrestling with “Who have I become?” and “Who would I like and need to be in the future?” can be uncomfortable. It can be challenging. It can be rewarding, too. And it’s as essential as breathing.
Read the full Brooks post here: www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/opinion/the-middle-age-surge.html