When, at 39, I was trying to decide whether to pursue training in positive psychology , I made for myself all the “practical” objections. I was already a successful lawyer, had a wife, kids, mortgage and typical routine. My wife, however, knew that deep down it was something I really wanted to do. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “I’d like to, but it is so expensive.”
Her: “Just do it.”
Me: “And I am not really sure what I would ‘do’ with it.”
Her: “Just do it.”
Me: “And it will put a lot of strain on you and the kids if I go back.”
Her: “Look. If for your midlife crisis you want to get another degree, I’d rather that then you getting a sports car or a younger woman. Just do it!”
(She is so much smarter than I am). And so I did.
Many people go though a certain reevaluation, readjustment, self-discovery, and rebalancing somewhere around aged 40. Dante Alighieri, was 35 when he awoke in the middle of a dark wood having lost his way. Walt Whitman was 37 when he wrote his great celebration of life, the Song of Myself. Some early Jewish denominations did not allow a man to study Kabbalah until they were 40. Siddhārtha Gautama achieved Buddahood at 35. The list goes on and on.
Certainly, during this reevaluation phase, people can become lost. However, what we go through at midlife does not really have to be a crisis. Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant found that one of the keys to Aging Well is how well we master the various developmental tasks we face as we transverse the aging process. Through the Study of Adult Development at Harvard, Vaillant was able to track people as they changed over time from adolescence into great-grandparenthood. In general, the people who mastered adulthood’s life tasks – Identity, Intimacy, Career Consolidation, Generativity, Keeper of the Meaning and Integrity – lived longer, were more fulfilled, had more friends, and were happier.
Whether mid-life becomes a crisis, or a point of opportunity and empowerment depends in part on how we approach these life tasks.
One can try to ignore our life changes, fail to master our developmental tasks, and risk looking like (and feeling like) T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock:
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me
Trying to hold on to his younger days and the younger fashions, Prufrock did not accept or grow into who he was becoming.
As an alternative, one can approach the inevitable changes in life with a renewed purpose and meaning, as does David T. Manning.
After 44 years as a research chemist, Dave retired and became a full time poet. Dave teaches, nurtures and serves others (Generativity) through his work with younger poets and with the North Carolina Poetry Society.
Through the life and hope and humor contained in his poetry, David passes on the traditions and stories and wisdom of the past to the next generation (Keeper of Meaning).
So my going back to graduate school to study how people find greater purpose and meaning in their lives was not the result of a crisis. Rather it was my immensely rewarding, and affirming entry into a new life stage.
Manning, D. T. (1999). Negotiating physics: And other poems. Old Mountain Press.
Manning, D. T. (2007). The Flower Sermon. Main Street Rag.
Vaillant, G. E. (1998). Adaptation to Life. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.
Vaillant, G. E. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.
Trousers Rolled courtesy of madmolecule