midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

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Midlife and Crisis: An Uneasy Relationship

This essay is the introduction to my new book, All That’s Gone and Still Remains: Reflections of a Man at Midlife, based on the Midlife Dude blog.

Midlife gets a bad rap. What else can be concluded when “midlife” is practically married to “crisis?” Two peas in a pod they are, “midlife” and “crisis.” But are they really well matched?

Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in 1965, concluding in a study that creative geniuses underwent changes of style or declines in productivity in their mid-to-late-30s. The term gained traction in popular culture by the 1970s, describing the time of life roughly between ages 40 and 65 when adults become attuned to their own mortality, concerned with leaving a mark before dying, and reflective about whether their first half of life has been meaningful.MidlifeCrisisGuyWithCar

But the term has snowballed from its origins documenting the imaginative processes of artists and poets in an obscure, dry journal of psychoanalysis to represent everything cataclysmic that seemingly afflicts the middle-aged trying desperately to ignore failed dreams and roll back the merciless tide of aging in a culture fixated on youth. Author Gail Sheehy cemented the gloomy view of midlife in her landmark 1976 bestselling book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, referring to decades of life as the “Forlorn Forties” and “Resigned Fifties.”

Time to Ditch Wife for Bombshell?

“Midlife crisis” is more typically applied to males, at least when couched in a derogatory manner signifying an unofficial malady. “Midlife crisis” has come to denote the man who ditches his long-devoted, slightly wrinkling and graying wife for the platinum blonde bombshell 20 years his junior in his office; trades in his practical suburban family vehicle for the candy-apple red Porsche roadster; and transforms from dull and predictable to flamboyant and impulsive, fueled by a surge of drugging and boozing in a pathetic effort to recapture the carefree, raucous days of yore.

For women, the term “midlife crisis” generally carries an undertone that is more forgiving and socially validating, one tilted more toward liberation than debauchery. Sure, some midlife women succumb to vain attempts to recapture youth through medical and cosmetic procedures, or irresponsibly abandon a family to engage in self-indulgent, feel-good, self-destructive behaviors. The 40s decade certainly seems a marker of heightened vulnerability and confusion, as the beauty of youth wanes, marriages grow stale and risk of divorce increase, and children become more independent and leave, diminishing what many women regard as a primary raison d’etre.

Yet, midlife is characterized more as a time of renewal, rebirth and exploration for women. It is seen as an opportunity to shed an old self that may have been contorted to meet societal, cultural and parental expectations and transform into a more authentic, independent, self-accepting, self-confident being, and to reclaim aspects of personality and passions lost along the way. Midlife is viewed as a period of re-evaluation and adjustment, of increased wisdom, strengths, experience and vitality, when old dreams that no longer inspire are abandoned and more genuine desires and talents take hold, a process known as self-actualization, or becoming more fully oneself. Rather than a “crisis” producing angst, depression and dissatisfaction, psychotherapist and author Stephanie Marston declared that  the women she chronicled in her book, If Not Now, When? Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife, characterized midlife as “one of the best times of their lives.”

What’s the Crisis?

Social science researchers have varied widely on whether any identifiable phenomenon that could be labeled as “midlife crisis” exists; numerous studies have shown midlife is not characterized by pervasive crises. Certainly, there are no commonly defined symptoms and nothing resembling a midlife disorder appears in the Bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Count renowned psychologist Daniel Levinson, author of the 1978 seminal book, Seasons of a Man’s Life, among the true believers. Following a group of working men for 10 years, Levinson developed a theory that delineated adulthood as a series of stages and transitions, each with a developmental task or crisis to resolve to advance to the next with a sense of well-being. Unlike some other researchers who rejected the concept of a “midlife crisis,” Levinson determined that 80 percent of the men he interviewed found the midlife transition a tumultuous struggle and psychologically painful. He bluntly described the existential predicament men face at midlife in Seasons: “Adults hope that life begins at 40 – but the great anxiety is that it ends there…It is terrifying to go through middle age in the shadow of death…and it is a self-defeating illusion to live it in the shadow of youth…”

I believe the stereotypical male version of a “midlife crisis” is overblown, hyperbole, a caricature. In reality, I contend a man’s “midlife crisis” more closely resembles the woman’s experience of re-evaluation, greater self-knowledge and wisdom – at least among those adults who aren’t withering in place – than the stereotypical jerk wearing shiny new bling glinting through an open shirt, cruising in an eye-popping Corvette convertible, ditzy blonde under his arm, toupee blowing in the wind.

Midlife Challenges

Midlife requires leaps of faith, acceptance and tolerance of uncertainty. We encounter the realization that our careers may have hit a ceiling, and re-evaluate whether the work at which we might have labored for decades provides meaning or nourishes our soul anymore, or ever did. We pause to question whether the race for success, advancement and achievement, as defined in young adulthood, is worth chasing anymore. If we haven’t already experienced job loss through no fault of our own, we are prime targets for downsizing and early retirement packages because of our age and salaries. We have to run ever faster to avoid becoming obsolete in the face of rapid societal and technological changes, the province of the young.

We grapple with the financial pressures of mortgages, college tuitions, accumulated debt, material acquisitions, increasing health care costs and looming retirement. We question whether our marriages are satisfying or have gone flat, whether the grass may be greener. We groom our children and ultimately set them free – except those suffering from Failure to Launch Syndrome — experiencing some sense of loss entering the childless phase. We may be sandwiched, caring for ailing parents while parenting our own kids. Mounting midlife challenges can be associated with high levels of stress, anxiety and sadness, which can lead to unhealthy lifestyles, deterioration of physical and mental health and acceleration of aging.

Through it all, we face choices, the biggest of which is whether we will transition at this crossroad toward reimagining and reinvigorating a life with new possibilities, purpose and contributions through continued growth and development, or whether we will hunker down, circle the wagons, kick like a mule, pull the covers tight, switch on autopilot and hang on mightily to the status quo, resigned to becoming a member of the walking dead until the nursing home comes calling.

Giving Back vs. Giving Up

Psychologist Erik Erickson captured this dichotomous phase of life in his preeminent Stages of Psychosocial Development theory, identifying midlife as the period of Generativity vs. Stagnation. Adults entering their second half of life would either help guide the next generation through socially valuable work, creativity, productivity and loving relationships, or would stagnate in a pool of self-centeredness and ineffectiveness. Those who do not associate change with growth but rather with loss, being passed by or failing are destined to weigh on Erickson’s Stagnation side of the scale.

I have dealt with many of midlife’s rites of passage. I have lost jobs multiple times; changed careers, requiring a return to school and sacrificing years of experience and money to start over in an occupation that stirred my soul; moved to experience a new environment and culture; divorced and remarried; faced the challenges of parenting teen-aged kids and watched them leave home for independent lives; cared for an ailing mother, and lost her; observed a colleague succumb to the ravages of alcohol and depression; experienced a major health setback and long rehabilitation; and strived for self-fulfilling goals involving creative expression. I believe I’m heading down Erickson’s path of Generativity; if I wasn’t, I imagine my life would be crushingly bland and I would be miserable.

These essays, compiled upon my entry into and over the course of a clinical mental health counseling graduate program from my late 40s to mid-50s, provide commentary from a personal perspective on these and other midlife issues, and seek to relate my experiences broadly to others going through similar midlife transitional phases and events. These writings reflect the opportunities and challenges, risks and rewards, hopes and fears, and triumphs and setbacks I’ve experienced and observed in midlife.

In tone, the essays are inspirational, triumphant, motivational, hopeful, wistful, prideful, contemplative,  inquisitive, wondrous, melancholic, depressing, upsetting, mournful, resigned, disappointed, critical, self-questioning – in short, the kaleidoscope that the midlife passage presents to our minds, hearts and souls.

Minimalism: More Freedom, Less Crap – Material and Otherwise

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around… Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself.

— The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

In a medical office waiting room, I stumbled across a reference to a book that piqued my interest, Everything That Remains, a memoir by two Dayton, Ohio young men with working class upbringings and early adulthood, ladder-climbing, wealth-accumulating ambitions, about their gravitation from the timeworn path toward an illusory standard of The American Dream to something more introspective and streamlined called Minimalism.

I found it at the library and read it. You might think the rest of this essay will be a screed about the evils and vacuousness of materialism and consumerism, and the beauty and simplicity of deprivation and Idealism, and a door-to-door-Bible-salesman-like proselytization aimed at convincing you to chuck the former’s wanderings through a vast commercial wasteland in favor of a holier life spent in the latter’s pure Garden of Eden. Breathe a sigh of relief; it won’t be.

The book did put a name to the broad ideas about how I’d prefer to live, though. And I believe I’m largely putting those ideas into practice.

When people hear the term “Minimalism” applied to a lifestyle, it does seem to conjure the image of someone just barely better off than Fed Ex plane crash survivor Tom Hanks’ character stranded on an uninhabited island in Castaway, fashioning shoes from palm fronds, feverishly twirling a stick on a rock to start a fire, and squeezing meager marine nourishment out of a shellfish speared with a homespun, sharpened bamboo pole. They think Minimalism means living a Spartan, monk-like, stripped-down existence: doing without, possessing no things, having no fun, staring at four bare walls from a lonely chair, living in a quixotic commune, scraping by on the minimum, spending no money – hell, making no money! It doesn’t.

What Minimalism means to me, as The Minimalists describe it, is eliminating the clutterFightClub_2 from my life – figuratively and literally – so that all I have left and all that I focus my attention and physical, mental and emotional energy upon are things that add value and meaning to my life. The Minimalists love the book/movie Fight Club, about an underground, subversive group of men breaking free from the soul-numbing shackles imposed by societal, cultural and corporate expectations, citing this quote from Fight Club’s charismatic leader Tyler Durden: “The things you own end up owning you.”

Eliminating oppressive, useless clutter that bogs you down applies to relationships, careers, meaningless pursuits and time-consuming obligations – real or imagined – as well as physical objects. That’s the freedom to which The Minimalists refer.

Minimalism is about breaking free from corporate and cultural influences that tell you who you should be, how you should act, what you should believe and how you should define success. It’s about the freedom to define your own path toward happiness and fulfillment, regardless of the disapproval and negativity you may receive from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It’s about the freedom to take risks, the freedom to make choices, the freedom to make mistakes and fail, and the freedom to take full responsibility for all of that in service of living a more courageous, authentic, satisfying and inspiring life.

It so happens that my recent movement toward Minimalism – a transition to a new career in mental health counseling from public relations, a move to a smaller area with a simpler lifestyle – has coincided with a more Spartan lifestyle, more out of necessity than by design. I have moved from a 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom townhouse to a 1-bed, 1-bath apartment. I am earning a salary that is less than half of my last full-time job salary, the result of the career change and starting on a bottom rung in a region with lower wages. I am not “livin’ large” – I’m driving a 15-year-old economy car; watching the smallest-possible, decade-old flat-screen TV, donated to me by a friend, on a no-frills cable TV package; and sleeping on a real bed only after weeks on a constantly-deflating air mattress, because I had no bed to take on my move – but I’m livin’ free and livin’ well.

I have no debt, save for my mortgage, the house I moved from but still own, and which still adds value to my life. I feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose in my new career than my former, so much so that retirement holds no allure for me at age 54, which I consider a good thing. I am pursuing activities and relationships that enhance my life.

I am a proponent of Minimalism, not because I want to latch on to the latest fad or lifestyle trend that may be featured on the Today show or in chic lifestyle magazines, but because my  re-evaluation of the course of my life during the reflective midlife phase was pointing me in the direction of Minimalism before I realized the philosophy had been assigned a pithy label. I am striving to be a Minimalist – not impoverished, deprived, lonely, isolated, rigid, overly austere, Utopian, cultist, weird, eccentric, anti-social, anti-consumerist, or anti-technologist (think Unabomber) – but free to embrace and fully pursue the things I value.

This quote from Minimalism’s emblematic movie, Fight Club, captures the undercurrent stimulating the Ohio natives’ cum Montana entrepreneurs’ lifestyle movement:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

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