I've been thinking about midlife crises lately, partly because of that article I've linked to three times now, and partly because a lot of my friends seem to be roughly where I was in 2014. I guess I was precocious?
Anyway, I've been thinking about why mid-life crises happen. They don't all turn out the same: I quit my job, I've watched some friends get divorced and others go through a period of misery and then decide to keep everything just as it was.
As different as their outcomes are, I think many, maybe even most, midlife crises start from looking around at your life and really seeing the results of your earlier choices. I thought I was paying attention, but once I hit that crisis point, I realized I hadn't really seen how things turned out in some cases. I was still telling myself I was it was too soon to know the outcome, when in many cases the verdict was in.
Some of the results were great, others less so. And it is the less great results that stand out. Combine that with the realization that some of the decisions you made were really final, and that time is running out on changing the results of some of the others... and of course there's going to be some angst.
For me, it was the first time I felt like I could see the entire arc of my life, not just where I'd been but also where I was likely to go if I kept going on the same path. Always before, I'd had the sense of almost infinite possibility: sure I was unlikely to sell all my possessions, move to a small village in Italy, and learn how to make pasta properly, but when I was younger, that sort of thing felt not just possible, but relatively easy to do, if I'd wanted to. Now, I saw a thicket of obstacles in the way of so many paths. I began to realize more clearly what my life would not be.
The terrible part of this is that at first, I didn't see what my life still could be. The real obstacles were mixed in with mirage obstacles to the point that I felt almost trapped. The work of the mid-life crisis is learning to understand which obstacles are real and which are mirages, and which can be overcome and which must simply be accommodated. You must also work out which paths are worth some extra effort to make your way past the mirages and over the real obstacles and which paths just aren't for you.
I tell my friends who are in the midst of the angst that yeah, it really, really sucks. But if you can work your way through the angst with some purpose without cracking under the pressure of it, then you'll probably come through to having a lot more clarity about yourself and your life and what really matters to you.
I recently wrote about some of what I learned in working through my angst. There is more for me to learn, and probably always will be. Life is journey, blah blah blah. But I have noticed that I approach big life choices with much more clarity now. This is a good thing, because the turmoil of this time period in American history is presenting me with a surprising number of big life choices. The parameters of the happy life I'd built myself since quitting my job have been changed on me, and I have to decide how to respond.
You've probably seen this quote from The Fellowship of the Ring making its rounds since the election:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
As crappy as the mid-life crisis experience was, I am grateful to have been through it before everything went to Hell, because the clarity about what matters to me, what will make me happy, and what can only lead to me being unhappy no matter how much I wish it was otherwise has been very helpful these past few months.
In short, the gift of the mid-life crisis is knowing yourself. The article I linked to above talks about the U-shaped curve for happiness: people are happy when they are young and when they are old, but not so much when they're in the middle. There are a lot of theories about why, with the fact that the middle is when you have a bunch of responsibilities being a big one. I don't dispute that at all. But I also think that part of the reason we get happy again as we get older is that we know ourselves better, and so we make better choices.
Here's to making the best choices we can with the time that is given us. That's really all we can hope to do.