A 40-something friend goes off and buys a trendy Vespa, which he secretly stashes at a buddy’s house, away from the inculpatory questions of his wife. A once-naturally pretty acquaintance in her early forties overdoes the Botox and gravity-defying lifts and ends up looking like a cartoon character. A blissfully-married friend still vehemently denies that he has hopelessly fallen in love with a “professional” and is on the brink of losing his family, his career and his soul.
Welcome to the wonderful world of mid-life! I myself am no stranger to this phenomenon. In my early forties, I thought I’d had enough. The trigger was a torturous job and the excruciatingly painful feeling of being inadequate. Ready to quit, I dropped everything, hied off to the bush and went on a 10-day silent retreat. I asked a wise mentor about this: what am I searching for? She told me that perhaps I should ask the question: what am I running away from?
Jungian analyst James Hollis (2005) says that in the first half of life, what we do is largely fueled by ambition, achievement and the ego. In the second half of life, the ego is compelled to surrender itself to that which is larger and to engage in something that is truly meaningful.
Our teens, twenties and thirties are characterized by fun, freedom and pleasure. I always hear peers say that life was simple back then. We had no responsibilities. If we make a mistake, we can always do over. Our twenties and thirties were a time to learn from successes and failures, wins and losses, good and bad decisions. Key words: Learn from. We later realize that not learning from and reflecting on our errors can cause them to come back like Walking Dead zombies and haunt, even devour us in our forties.
Paraphrasing Hollis again, if the first half of our life does not support our soul’s agenda, then the soul will demand payback and this will surface as a pathology in our daily life. If we mindlessly lived through our twenties and thirties without reflection and meaning, our soul will be forced to reckon with this in our forties in various forms: a sports car we could barely afford, the perfect pair of boobs that looks funny on a 46-year old body or a steamy affair that could devastate our family life.
How can one get through mid-life crisis in one piece? I honestly don’t know the answer. However, if I were to give some advice to my 41-year old self as I was struggling some years back, I would have 3 things to say.
Rediscover your True North. Being in a mid-life crisis is like sailing off course in a tempestuous ocean and exerting Herculean effort to gain back control. It is at these times that we need to set our eyes on our True North to orient ourselves and find some direction. For most, it helps to focus on what is constant in our lives such as spirituality, family, true friends and values.
Pay Attention and Listen. Be conscious of what’s going on around you and how you are showing up in the world. Genuine friends and sincere family members would know something is up and would lovingly nudge us about behaviors that are “not us.” When I was spiraling down during my crisis, a good friend told me that I was no longer practicing empathy (my best trait) and was cooped up in my own little world. It takes someone who really cares to give us some tough love when it is needed.
Get a Grip. In our tendency to act out, it is tempting to interpret “letting go” and “going with the flow” as simply doing whatever we want regardless who gets hurt along the way. If necessary, we should slap ourselves on the face (literally and figuratively) to realize that we are on the road to ruin if we don’t watch out. Better yet, allow a loved one to do that so we can wake up to the reality of our actions.
Mid-life is a trying time and we all do what can to get by. My friend eventually told his wife about his Vespa and goes on joy rides whenever he needs precious alone moments of fun and freedom. As for me, I have discovered mindfulness and meditation to try to make sense of the nagging inner void. I am still struggling half the time and it’s okay. That’s all we can do really, until the succeeding years roll by and the next challenges come along. We hope that our lessons and reflections from our forties will carry us through the following decades toward more meaning in our twilight years.
Hollis, J. (2005). Finding meaning in the second half of life: How to finally, really grow up. New York: Gotham Books.