I recently turned 46, which happens to be the average age of onset of midlife crises for American men. As for signs of this event in my own life, so far so good. I haven’t experienced any sudden impulses to change my career, purchase a yacht, get a tattoo, or skip out on my wife for a younger woman. But I must admit that the last five years or so I’ve found myself doing more assessment of my life to this point and my goals for whatever time I have left on this planet. And being a philosopher, of course, I’ve also been reflecting on just what a midlife crisis is.
The phrase “midlife crisis” was first used by psychologist Elliott Jaques in 1965 to describe that phase of psychological and behavioral turmoil which is experienced by about 15% of middle-aged adults in Western societies. (Interestingly, some Eastern cultures, such as in Japan and India, show no evidence of midlife crises.) Classic psychological symptoms include feelings of self-doubt, disappointment over goals not achieved, and obsessive preoccupation with staying young. Such feelings sometimes prompt extreme behaviors, from extravagant purchases to adulterous liaisons.
Psychologists have proposed a variety of theories as to the ultimate causes of midlife crisis, regarding everything from Jungian self-actualization to the “sandwiched caregiver” effect of having to simultaneously care for children and aging parents. But from what I’ve seen there is insufficient attention paid to the simple fact that it is often during midlife—in one’s 40s and 50s—that one is first acutely struck with the fact of his or her own mortality. Whether it is hair loss, menopause, loss of youthful appearance, decline of athletic ability or, most likely, some combination of such factors, the imminence of one’s earthly demise becomes increasingly apparent during this period.
So how does one respond? Obviously, some folks do not respond very well at all—essentially resisting the inevitable in a pathetic, vain, and sometimes laughable or even tragic attempt to hold on to one’s youth (or the Western accoutrements of youth) as long as one can. As I see it, this is nothing other than a refusal to accept one’s mortality. It is as if one’s body is declaring “Take note: I am approaching death—very slowly, perhaps, but quite assuredly,” and the midlife crisis prototype replies, “Don’t be silly. You’ll be young forever. Come on, body, let’s prove it by doing X, Y, and Z.”
Other people, for whatever reason, respond very well to midlife physical decline. They are able to “age gracefully,” allowing their youth to pass without desperately resisting the cosmetic symptoms of the aging process. Nor, however, do they give up on healthy living. They practice dietary discipline and get regular exercise but do so more for the sake of maintaining productivity and because they see their body as the sacred gift that it is.
These are, of course, extremes on the spectrum of responses to the midlife symptoms of mortality. Perhaps most people fall somewhere in the middle, struggling to resist aspects of the aging process without denying it altogether. One thing that has helped me is the realization that midlife is, like every other stage of life, essentially a moral trial. Sudden or unexpected physical decline of any kind, whether due to disease or injury, has a way of bringing character issues into sharp relief. And one can either respond with acceptance or resistance. The physical decline of midlife just happens to be natural and gradual, but the response options are the same. The way of wisdom is that of accepting one’s lot while working hard to make the best of it, and the way of the fool is that of resisting it to the point of preoccupying oneself with the impossible task of avoiding it. So midlife decline presents two basic paths: 1) moral growth and maturing in virtue or 2) moral degeneration and reversion to immaturity and vice. The classic midlife crisis could be simply defined in terms of the latter, at least from the standpoint of moral development.
Another way of analyzing midlife challenges is as a trial of faith. Physical decline tends to prompt one to look heavenward or to become obsessed with preserving one’s earthly existence. Yes, some folks do seem to blithely accept their physical fate, at least for a while. But this is really just a form of denial. I have seen such people fall very clearly into one of the other categories—heavenly-mindedness or earthly obsession—with the near approach of the angel of death. And I suppose it is this way with nearly everyone.
As I see it, the physical decline of midlife is in many ways a gift, a blessed admonition that this world is, as Bob Dylan says, “a passing through place.” God grants us many signs along life’s road to remind us that we are approaching that final turn, so to speak. Even the most morally and spiritually devout among us can benefit from these reminders.