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Facing Mid-Life Crisis Can Create a Positive Outcome

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am a 49-year-old man and am reacting to some negative things happening all around me. I have aches and pains and recently had to go to the emergency room. My girlfriend’s father just died and my father just had major heart surgery. And some of my friends are facing life-threatening illnesses. It all adds up and has me thinking – somewhat obsessively – about the shortness of life, being sick in later (or nearer) years and just the precariousness of health in general. How do you deal with these thoughts? What can we do to make the coming of age as happy as possible? How do we avoid thinking of the “end” coming so fast? Does this make sense?

Answer: Your question makes perfect sense. The experiences you describe and your reactions resemble some aspects of a midlife crisis.  Let’s discuss some of what we know.

A midlife crisis typically occurs between age 40 and 60. For many, it is characterized by doubt, turmoil and conflict brought on by fears and anxieties about getting older. It is a time of transition involving taking stock of where you are in your life.

The prevalence of midlife crisis is debated. Older research suggests that 80 percent of midlife adults went through such an experience. More recent research by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s study on Successful Midlife Development found that 26.8 percent of adults 40 to 60 reported having a midlife crisis.

Further research indicated that only 8 percent related their turmoil to the realization they were aging.

The idea has been around for 700 years. Dante, at 35, referred to midlife crisis in the first lines of “The Divine Comedy.” He is considered the first contributor to literature on the subject.
Centuries later, Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, published his ideas about predictable life stages. He wrote, “The task of midlife is not to look into the light, but to bring light into the darkness.” (Not a very positive sense of midlife.)

In the early 1960s, Canadian-born psychologist Elliott Jaques was researching careers of artists and composers including Dante. He noticed that many went through turmoil in their middle years; some became less productive (excluding Jung). In 1965, he published a paper on this pattern and gave midlife crisis a name. His work was academic.

Gail Sheehy brought the concept into popular culture with her 1976 bestseller “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life.” She discusses the “Forlorn 40s” and writes about the “dangerous years when the dreams of youth demand reassessment, (when) men and women switch characteristics, (when) sexual panic is common and (when) the greatest opportunity for self-discovery awaits.”

A midlife crisis often is related to external events. For Sheehy, it occurred when she was on assignment in Northern Ireland and found herself talking with a young boy after a civil rights march by the Catholics of Derry. A bullet blew off his face. She writes, “The boy without the face fell on top of me. An old man collapsed on (both of) us.”

A bullet passed by the front of her nose and she later found herself lying on her stomach to avoid getting hit. “No one is with me. No one can keep me safe.”

It was 1972 and “Bloody Sunday” in Northern Ireland. Sheehy survived and was changed at the age of 35.

She wrote, “As we reach midlife we become susceptible to the idea of our own perishability. We are not prepared for the idea that time can run out on us, or for the startling truth that if we don’t hurry to pursue our own definition of a meaningful existence, life can be a repetition of trivial maintenance duties.”

The older we become, the more of life happens. And illness, loss, death and disability can be part of those happenings. Knowing we have no control is a sobering moment and gives us reason to pause and be reflective. The question comes up, “Am I leading the life I want to lead?”

Doubts about relationships, work and lifestyle are not unusual.  Yet, midlife crisis often leads to exceptional opportunities for the better. Note, the word “crisis” has been part of the English language since 1425.  It meant the turning point of a disease.  “Crisis” comes from the Greek noun krisis, meaning choice, decision or judgment. And krisis is derived from the Greek verb krinein, meaning to decide.  The implication is that a crisis leads to making decisions.

And decisions are part of the opportunity aspect. This is the focus of the Chinese definition of the word, which is made up of two characters: One represents danger and the other represents opportunity, meaning that a crisis is a dangerous opportunity.  (Note, this definition has been questioned by scholars such as Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.)

All of this deciding, judging and having dangerous opportunities can happen in midlife.  A crisis during the middle years provides opportunities for change and growth as well as for regression and stagnation.    The decision on which way the midlife crisis is addressed is up to the individual.

The opportunity side was explained by Professor Carlo Strenger of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology.   He writes that the midlife years are the best time of life to flourish and grow.  He cites empirical evidence that adult lives have second acts which involve change.  Books, blogs, consultants and nonprofits only affirm the second-act concept.  Strenger suggests that we think of the midlife crisis as a midlife transition.

He also provides some tips to avoid such a crisis as reported in an interview with Rick Nauert, senior news editor for the website Psycho-Central..  These same tips are useful if one is in the middle of it.

  • Invest time and thought in the fact that you have more high-quality time ahead of you than behind you.  The operative words are high quality.  Given increased life expectancy and improved health, this makes sense.
  • Think about what you have learned about yourself.  What are your strongest abilities that you like, not what society or your parents expect from you.
  • If you want to make some changes, don’t fear the daunting obstacles that confront you.  Knowing that you have time ahead of you will make this exercise of personal investment worthwhile.
  • Use those around you for discussion and support.  Discuss major concerns and life changes with colleagues, family members and friends.  They likely will welcome the opportunity.
  • If depression or inability to get moving becomes pervasive, consider seeing a therapist or counselor.

Here are a few more to consider.

Confronting mortality can be part of the midlife challenge or transition.  Be honest with yourself and address the issue.  Ask yourself if you are living the life you want.  That might require looking at your health, your relationships, finances and career.

Note, I am not advocating dramatic or impulsive changes such as divorcing your wife, buying a red Porsche, quitting your job or moving to a remote island.   Rather, midlife, which may be self-defined, is a time to take stock and be aware of how we are spending our time, with whom and what is meaningful at our life stage.

Finally, consider filling your life with the “good stuff” — joy, beauty, meaning and wonderful relationships.   The challenge is to determine what that good stuff is for each of us.   It’s never too early to begin on that homework assignment.

Perhaps the midlife crisis should be renamed the midlife wake-up call.  Stephen Covey, wrote in his book, “First Things First,” (Free Press, 2003), “In the absence of a wake-up call, many of us never really confront the critical issues of life.”

Thank you for your good question.  Midlife can be empowering.  Let’s all (thoughtfully) grab the gold ring.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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