Friday, August 19, 2005


Existential Friday: what is mid-life crisis?

midlife crisis1 midlife crisis2

By his 31st birthday, Merriweather Lewis was as accomplished as almost anyone in U.S. history.

He was leading the Lewis and Clark expedition about halfway toward its goal, having traveled by foot and rudimentary boats through well over a thousand miles of backcountry and wilderness, from Pittsburgh to present day Montana. He had already catalogued dozens of plant and animal species unknown to western science, and mapped hundreds of miles of uncharted territory.

His resume included several years of military service rising to the rank of captain, and two years as President Jefferson’s personal secretary and daily companion, during which time he almost single-handedly advised Jefferson in reforming the army. He had the complete skill sets to operate a Virginia plantation (including animal husbandry, food production, business management and surveying) or survive in the wilderness (including hunting and cooking, building and operating a canoe, and rudimentary communication with Indian tribespeople through sign language), and he was proficient at mapmaking, celestial navigation, botany, zoology and practical medicine.

Yet on his 31st birthday, Lewis's journal entry records the gloomy reflection that his life was half over and that he had squandered his time thus far without doing anything much to advance the general welfare of mankind. And he resolved to renew and redouble his efforts to accomplishing something useful.

Yes, Merriweather Lewis, in the middle of leading his historic expedition across the American continent, was also in the midst of a mid-life crisis.

Lewis’s journal confirms for me an enduring truth about our driven American (perhaps western) lives. Mid life crisis is a condition that effects pretty much all of us, and is nothing more or less than a consciousness that our lives are half over: that in a number of years that is probably no more (and possibly much less) than the number of years we have lived, we will be dead.

In Lewis’s time of much shorter life expentancy, 31 was well into middle age. Today, the marker for mid-life and the attendant mid-life crisis is 40. Although I believe mid life crisis is fundamentally a psychological, philosophical and cultural phenomenon – it is biological only secondarily, in the sense that it is an attitude about the biological fact that the body ages and dies – it is as much a part of the process of human development in our culture as is the attainment of “adulthood.”*

I’ll explore the mid life crisis a lot in the pages of Existential Friday. For now, I’ll leave you with two key points about mid life crisis.

1) Mid life crisis is serious business. In our society, the phrase “mid life crisis” has become the punchline of a joke. It calls to mind a foolish and losing battle to cling to the last traces (or lost traces) of youth. Paunchy, bald men driving around in “sexy” cars and lusting hopefully after much-younger women. Wrinkled women in tight leather pants talking too loudly with their friends in a bar.

But those are only symptoms – typical reactions of people to the underlying reality of the mid life crisis. If sports cars and leather pants are foolish, it’s because they may be a sign of a lack of reflection, of trying to distract ourselves from the meaning of mid-life rather than facing it. On a basic level, however, are they any more “foolish” than trying to make all the money you can?

In any event, mid life is a crisis. I don’t mean that it’s a justification for becoming self absorbed and self-dramatizing. But it involves confronting the great, insoluble problem of life: mortality. Death – and being at least halfway toward it – is no joke.

2) Mid life crisis is a sort of wisdom. Can be a sort of wisdom. The consciousness of death that comes around age 40 is a consciousness that is simply unavailable to younger people – even those in their late 30s. We all understand how children are too self-absorbed to have this sort of awareness – that’s just a normal part of human psycho-biological development. But I maintain that teens (despite their occasional flirtations with suicide), 20-somethings (despite their drama) and 30-somethings (despite their immersion in newfound “responsibility”) lack this awareness. Yes, people under 40 at some point come to “know” that they are not immortal and will die one day. But that knowledge is abstract, theoretical, purely intellectual. They don’t know it in their bones.

People under 40 feel – paradoxically, but fundamentally – that they are moving through a series of life-stages, each one of which lasts forever. They don’t get it.

And because they don’t get it, they laugh and joke about “mid life crisis.” And many people over 40 laugh and joke about mid life crisis too – but that itself is just another way of clinging to youth.

And for all of us, joking about mid life crisis is no different from joking and laughing about death – or about any of our fears.

*I don’t find it a contradiction in terms that human development has a huge cultural and psychological component. Our society, for example, declines to recognize the sexual autonomy of people under 18 or so years old based on cultural and psychological factors, even though biological sexual maturity is generally reached by age 14.

I agree with your post on some levels, but not on others.

The mid-life issues push you, but they push different people in different directions. For example, I was very much focused on matters of life and death throughout my adolescence and way into my twenties. Perhaps it is because I lived so many years in Poland, facing a Catholic nation as the sole (or so I thought) atheist.

At your described mid-point all this subsided. Success came to be defined differently. And most importantly, it began to dawn on me that I would not live my life perfectly. That I would continue to make mistakes. That I would never live up to the potential that is within me (and within all of us).

And so the burden of life lifted just a little. And with it, the preoccupation with mortality.

I have to tell you, it's great to read your Friday posts. The blog world is dominated by young people. Frankly, most haven't a clue about what it means to walk through the decades of one's life. No matter how wise and smart and clever they are -- they haven't a clue. It's refreshing to read a blog of someone who knows, who recognizes the changes, who looks at them squarely and writes about them.

So thanks, Oscar.
If I wrote all my reactions to this post, my comment would be longer than the original post. Instead, I'll just jot down a few points.

First, my immediate reaction was "Thank goodness I haven't purchased any tight leather pants . . . yet." Maybe there's still hope for me getting through this stage of life without making a complete fool of myself.

Second, please, please, please stop associating the midlife crisis with the need to confront one's mortality. I don't like that kind of talk.

Third, I love Lewis and Clark and have a collection of books about their expedition. In a strange way, I find myself pleased to learn that I share this midlife angst thing with Clark. Maybe it is time for me to take a cross country journey too.
Most guys can't afford the sexy cars until they're in their 40s or later.

Most women don't reach the "the hell with it, I'll do what I want" stage until then, either.

But, you're right that I never really had a whiff of my own mortality until the last couple of years.
Dear Oscar,

Things are rather hectic right now. May I put off my mid-life crisis to a more convenient time? Like, when I am 75?
I think young people have much more awareness of death than you're letting on. Many teens become quite absorbed in it, listening to death-obsessed music lyrics and too often actually embracing death, committing suicide. And what young child does not think of the question "Will I die too?" when a pet or a grandparent dies? I remember at age 10 being overwhelmed by the idea that I was one-tenth of the way to 100, which was as long as I could hope to live if lucky. So all life is is ten of these? I thought and felt quite bad about it. The obsession with death comes and goes over the course of a lifetime. You experience some peaks, probably connected to the death of a loved one. I think as you get older, you develop a mellower attitude about it. It's a thrilling topic for a teen, an angsty obsession for a youngish adult, and an integrated part of reality for a older adult.
Great work on your blog - it was very enlightening. You've got a lot of useful info on there about Business Management so I've bookmarked your site so I don't lose it. I'm doing a lot of research on Business Management Exposed and have just started a new blog - I'd really appreciate your comments
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