A lot is made of what it means to be at midlife, and about the so-called “midlife crisis.” What if we looked at such “crises” as opportunities? Let’s explore what meaning can be found in this life stage.
In five days, I’ll be 45 years old. According to my friend Google, that is the beginning of midlife. The average lifespan of people in the U.S. is approximately 78.5 years. The math bugged me until recently (recently being two days ago) when it finally hit me that “midlife” refers to the halfway point of adulthood.
For the past few years I’ve wavered between denying and accepting that midlife was looming. I’d think about this or that aspect, but rarely the entire issue as a whole. It was while assembling the pieces of this sermon that the picture has finally begun to coalesce. At the risk of causing great amusement to our holder, hopefully wiser friends, I’m going to share what I feel to be my more significant reflections upon entering this phase of life.
Does Midlife Equal Crisis?
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “midlife”? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a certain trope come to mind; the proverbial “midlife crisis.” You may be familiar with the most famous version, the one where a man at about age 50 buys a shiny new Corvette and leaves his long-suffering wife for a younger woman. All of that is supposed to wreck his life after the rejuvenation fades. Right?
Yes, this kind of thing does happen, but it’s uncommon. In fact, one might argue that few middle-aged people have the kind of crisis that leads to drastic life changes. I don’t know that this is true. I suspect that many people do face at least some level of existential crisis at some point along this journey.
That point may come when the awareness of aging settles in. Joints ache in the mornings, kids grow older, classmates become grandparents, gray hairs sprout out of unexpected places, and oh, that blood pressure! This describes me, right now, along with the realization that I quite likely lived through about half my adulthood. Unless I live to be ninety years old or more, I’ve lived half my life. That’s more life than what I have left. To me, this is a sobering reminder that my time is finite. It’s uncomfortable, and I’m not sure if I’m okay with this. Everyone deals with this in their own way.
Where’s the Balance?
In situations like the stereotype from before, the midlifer may freak out and jump at every chance to fill their lives with the things they never got around to doing. Or they pursue new things and people who make them feel younger. Mind over matter, right? It doesn’t have to be a Corvette and younger partner. This scenario can take countless forms, such as quitting an established career in order to write one’s first novel, secret affairs, or buying a Porsche instead of a Corvette. Engaging in risky behaviors without balancing the reality of one’s needs can lead to destruction of self and destruction of one’s relationships. Once that disposable income is spent and/or credit cards are maxed out, a person in the scenario can find themselves stranded by burned bridges and floods of sorrow. It’s possible to regain balance, but it isn’t easy.
If diving all-in is destructive, what about chasing dreams and leaving toxic relationships? Of course, it’s valid to pursue one’s passions. The difference lies within the approach, that these decisions are more informed than impulsive. Usually. By this age, most of us have responsibilities that we can’t just drop and leave behind. Especially kids. Apparently, there are laws about that last one.
The Road Not Taken
I can’t think of a single person I know who doesn’t have something they wish they’ve tried or followed through upon. Now that my peers are settling into midlife, I’m seeing more of them go back to school for new or advanced degrees, buy fancy sport cars without bankrupting their families, leave toxic relationships in search of self and maybe new love, writing books when they’re not at work, begin beekeeping, or trying new hobbies. In my case, as some of you may know, I’ve started racing BMX with my child, joined the Worship Team here, and oh yeah, something about being on the church Board. That happened too. Whatever someone does, it is up to them to work through to find balance or not. Either way, it is quite possible to pursue those dreams in healthy ways.
Many people treat this phase of life as they do with any other, albeit with less energy than they had in their twenties. There are a lot of potential reasons. The happiest, of course, is general satisfaction. Somehow, I think they are the rarest and luckiest of us all. If they do feel that twang of existential crisis, they work through it and move forward.
Those Who Can’t
What we must not forget is that there are folks who don’t get to try, do, or buy the things I’ve talked about so far. Difficult circumstances make it nearly impossible to do more than realize and reflect, and that’s if they have the time and energy to do so. My own family comes to mind. Due to the borderline poverty and the stress of five kids in a crowded double-wide, I witnessed my parents enter middle age with nary a whisper. They went to work and came home day after day – my dad still does – and would be too exhausted to think, let alone chase dreams. My mom tried to dream for a while; that’s how she ended up with Amway, until the false promises drained not only her pockets, but her hopes for something better than a dead-end job packing pipe fittings into cardboard boxes. Who has time for existential crisis when they piece rate gets higher by the week? The years crawl, yet fly past. One shift can feel like an eternity, but five years have passed before you know it.
Unfortunately, midlife also has victims. Physical and mental health issues get more challenging even if you have the resources to fight to feel better. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the 45-54 age group had the highest rates of loss for many years. This only changed when the 85+ age group surpassed those numbers in 2019. If there is any good news here, it’s that these statistics are being tracked, and there are advocates who are working for better intervention and treatment.
Aging in the Workforce
Since tomorrow is Labor Day, I’m reminded of another reality people face as they enter middle age. In today’s hyper-capitalistic society, job experience is not as appreciated as it used to be. The factory where my mom worked is a prime example. They had employees who had worked there for decades. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the company started jacking up their piece rates (how many parts they had to pack per hour) at ridiculous amounts. Once by one, my mom’s older coworkers either quit or were fired for not making rate. Due to age discrimination laws, they had to manufacture those reasons to fire them. Incidentally, younger workers had almost as hard a time keeping up. Since they didn’t have union protection, they were stuck with the corporate hijinks. My mom was one of the last of her original group to leave. It was a few years before retirement age, and she took a heck of a hit, but she couldn’t handle that anymore. She was firmly in middle age when these changes started, and that she made it as long as she did at that place is nothing short of amazing.
This type of action occurs in almost every employment sector. Besides the concerns about being pushed out of some jobs, there’s a very real concern over finding new employment if one loses the job they have. I think we all know the stories of former white-collar employees working minimum wage jobs after losing their careers during the Great Recession.
Crisis to Opportunity
For all those worries though, we have cause to be optimistic. The idea of the existential crisis doesn’t have to be negative. The pursuits of dreams that I mentioned earlier are born from those crises. The crisis doesn’t have to be large; it just has to be present in order to spur a person on to explore and reexamine one’s life, to discover who and what we are. Working through these moments provides opportunities for new experiences and directions in life. For those who don’t have the resources to embrace drastic change, these moments can still bring insight or inspiration to do little things to spark joy or keep their dreams alive.
I want to close by sharing from a scene I recently saw on the series Babylon 5. It was a sci-fi series in the late 1990s, and like most sci-fi, there was a lot of philosophy built into it. In this scene, the stations head doctor took time off to recover from an addiction to stimulants. As he was finally getting better, he tried to help someone and almost died. What he says in this passage blew me away, and I hope you find it inspiring as well: