Surviving midlife

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Maybe I’m a man

Maybe I’m a lonely man

Who’s in the middle of something

That he doesn’t really understand.

— Maybe I’m Amazed

by Paul McCartney

Everywhere I go, I seem to bump into people who suspect their mid-life crisis has begun, or feel they are smack in the midst of a full-blown one. Being in my mid-50s, it is not surprising that a lot of my friends are into mid-life crisis. But what surprises me is that many people I know in their late 20s or early 30s are already showing signs of its onset.

A brief search of Google says that mid-life usually begins “at age 40, give or take 20 years.” So, in effect, most adults you and I know are probably in this phase of life to varying degrees.

Carl Jung was one of the first to identify this phase and call it what it is. Regardless of whether midlife crisis is triggered by personal tragedy — like the death of someone close or some catastrophic events — Jung says that in every case, midlife occurs in five phases:

1) Accommodation, where we live life according to the expectations of others. This happens early and is the context in which mid-life sets in.

2) Separation, the phase when we wake up to find that our lives have largely been about accommodating others’ expectations, and begin the process of rejecting the “accommodated self.”

3) Liminality, a period of doubt and uncertainty where we live aimlessly, seemingly without purpose.

4) Reintegration, when we begin to deeply answer the question of who we are and become comfortable with the new identity that emerges.

Okay, this is as far as I will quote from books and stuff. From hereon, I will be talking about my own mid-lifing experience, which I still am probably going through. Here are a few things I noticed when I felt the onset of my midlife crisis some 20 years ago.

• The term “midlife crisis” is inaccurate. The turmoil and events that proceed after it begins suggest that the word “crises” is more apt because one goes through definitely not just one, but many episodes of the same themes which play out a lot. If it’s not one thing, like worrying about who I really am and my purpose in this life, it’s another, like questioning my beliefs and membership and loyalties to certain institutions. Or it may be beating myself up about my perceived lack of something to show in terms of achievement at certain points in my life, or (strangely enough) not caring one bit about it at other times.

• There is the onset of boredom which is not what we usually feel when we have nothing to do, but a deep gnawing ennui that leads not to questioning but to depression. It is puzzling when all of a sudden you find yourself outgrowing certain activities, and even certain friends. Almost overnight, you feel a change in yourself in relation to the world you operate in. Somehow, what used to satisfy no longer does. Like a teenager, you find a big part of you does not fit in.

• The screw tightens even more. I found myself questioning the very basic things I took for granted — my capabilities, tastes, opinions, vows, faith and motivations. In a profound way, I was turning my world upside down with questions to find out what was on top and what lay under it. In the process, I stumbled on some of the many masks and roles I did not know I was wearing. I continue to discover others. And as I unmasked myself, I discovered that the world was unmasked as well. There is a John Mayer song I like because it sums up a big “aha” moment I had years back:

I wanna run through the halls of my high school

I wanna scream at the top of my lungs

I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world

Just a lie you’ve got to rise above.

• There is the painful realization that most of what seemed true earlier in your life is quickly nearing its expiration date. And yet, it is so painful to part with these beliefs, even though you know you must in order to be make space for the new truths that are unraveling. Discerning what to throw away and what to keep is a daunting order and takes a lot of courage and reflection.

Imagine that your house is on fire and you have a few short moments to run in and pick up your valuable stuff. What stuff do you actually pick out? Unless you are consciously aware of what you need to do, you may unthinkingly rush in and pick up your high school Playboy magazine collection in place of a family heirloom.

• There is a flurry of activities that one engages in that seem in retrospect all about the vain attempt to hold on to the power of fading youth. My sister-in-law calls her 40-ish husband’s new BMW “the midlife crisis car”! Many men and women go through physical makeovers — the tummy tuck, lipo, implants, nose jobs, sexual enhancement drugs, etc. The few times I tried to stop dyeing my hair, I got annoyed at having to repeatedly explain why my whole head of hair was suddenly white. So I resumed the dyeing. Sometimes I stop just to defy the world. I worry less now about my receding hairline but I admit to taking Chinese herbal drugs to slow it down.

• When we let go of attitudes, beliefs and ways that don’t work, there appear newer ones that take their place. This will happen repeatedly until we find the right ones that apply to this new stage in our lives. We are like a house in renovation except that the dust has not settled and so we are not sure what we really look like inside. But be assured that there is a lot of activity happening there.

We can also compare ourselves to snakes in the sense that we must shed off old skin periodically to continue living in a supple, energetic new body. I noticed that when Sangliggonaposila, a noontime show I was involved with 10 years ago, came to an end, my life was thrown into turmoil. My usual income stream dried up big-time and I felt washed out.

But in place of the frenetic triviality I was engaged in for a living, I discovered silence, which in turn led me to more introspection and reflection. I also discovered many hidden talents and interests I did not know I had as I began to practice Zen, write books, articles, blogs, got into teaching, designing and facilitating workshops, photography, diving and taking long walks.

I felt a personal renaissance, an immense growth spurt which continues to this day. I can definitely say my life is being powered by my second wind.

• Lastly, I am more forgiving of myself now. I find myself in a better place regarding my accommodation with personal faults and weaknesses. Whereas before, I would beat myself up over perceived failures and character flaws, I am now less severe and am even accepting of my imperfections. I also notice that I have become less judgmental of other people.

Which is not to imply that I am in a blissfully peaceful place at all times. I have a long way to go before I master jumping over the wide fault lines on the terrain of midlife.

Life continues to pull the rug from under my feet in varying intensities but years of practice has helped me cope better. Sure, doubts and cynicism continue to plague me and I still play the people-pleaser role on occasion. But I am learning to say it’s okay when I am not 1at my best and express my opinions more spontaneously than merely saying what is expected of me out of political correctness.

To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, I am beginning to enjoy and appreciate the pleasure and privilege of being my true self, warts and all.

12 thoughts on “Surviving midlife”

  1. Thanks for the enlightening article Jim. I reckon i am in the midst of my mid life crisis and literally at the crossroads of life at the moment. I will turn 43, and have just left a stable career to try it out here in Sydney with family( wife and 2 boys ). It was such a delight to discover your blog, all your writings i definitely and absolutely relate too. It has been a real adventure for me so far, it took a big effort to adjust but being fortunate enough to have learned to see the positive side of things, i am blessed to experience everyday as a holiday (So far…i hope it lasts..). Keep the articles coming! cheers mate.

  2. It seems you are navigating it well.

    That’s how I felt too when I packed up for Sydney with my family. Scary feeling but I felt really alive! The unlnown is the place where you grow.

  3. “It is puzzling when all of a sudden you find yourself outgrowing certain activities, and even certain friends. Almost overnight, you feel a change in yourself in relation to the world you operate in.”

    Right on. That;s exactly what happened to me. And though until now I get questions as to why I “changed” so much in such a little time, I’ve accepted the fact that the old me just isn’t here anymore. Hard to explain to people who’ve seen you grow, and friends you’ve learned to let go.

  4. Wow! Reading this made me realize that I had my crisis a bit early. I grew up with so much expectation from my relatives; I became the model figure to my younger cousins and to some of my friends. Now I am 21, I finished my college degree on time, I am a young professional, I work, I earn, I make sure I make a good impression at work, my family praises me for being responsible after my parents got separated and I was left in Davao alone with my relatives, they said “YOU ARE ALWAYS IN CONTROL IN SPITE OF WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR FAMILY,” they trust me now with more serious matters, and just a few months ago, I started asking myself if “who am I?”. I just remembered some of our discussions in Psychology and suddenly had this idea that I might be conditioned to become who I am. That maybe I become this responsible and orderly kind of person because I am expected to act like one, and if ever that is true I don’t want to settle my issues later because I believed I should be setting myself in proper place as early as now.

    One day I met someone whom I thought could be just a normal new friend, until I saw some potentials in him that I could abuse. I saw the kind of person that is exactly the opposite of who I am and I believed he is someone who can turn my world up side down. I had the courage and motivation to answer my questions, so I take further actions. One day, I transformed myself into a different person, I did not do well with my job, I make absences more often, I was non-existent at home because I was with that someone drinking, partying, I almost had sex (which I can’t really dare to do with someone I don’t love) and I smoke weed twice, I was living like a rockstar. It was a total breakout from my comfort zone. I reside in this kind of life for 2 months, and then I just grew tired of it and I made a reflection about my little experiment, I asked myself, ”was that kind of life I want?” and finally I had the answers and it gave me a feeling of relief. I went back to the kind of life I am used to, bearing the learning I had “I’m a person who wants to become a crap yet I don’t feel like being a crap because I am more happy not being crap.” It is like giving up some of my earthly desires, for something that is more purposeful and something that would contribute more to my being, which in the end would make me feel happy and proud about myself.

    The only guilt I had was I used that person as part of my experiment; he was like a specimen in my test tube…hehe:D

    One down…and there’s many more crises ahead.

  5. now i’m experiencing what they call as quarter life crisis, i’m in my early 20’s. now, i’m anxious about how i will feel when i’m in my 40’ mid life crisis worse than having this “quarter life crisis?”
    i’m earning relatively good salary at my age, i have a supportive fiance, great family..i have a lot of things i want to accomplish but i feel like i’m running out of time..this blog is really enlightening..thanks..i think a lot of young professionals like me can relate to this

  6. Hanne– it’s hard for people who have not grown to understand what you went through.

    mary–episode one done! more to come.

    anonymous– I suspect what you are going through may be something different. I went through that too. It’s quite a productive phase. Midlife Crisis is when you feel that what used to be true, or worked does not do it for you anymore.

    Tina–nice site.

  7. this article really struck me since i feel like im going through everything you just mentioned. but then, your reply to anonymous on quarter-life crisis made me wonder: if its a different thing altogether, can you give some insights on how to deal with it?

    thank you for such a helpful blog. it helps a lot to understand things i cannot explain myself and to read other people’s pov.

    thanks for sharing your wisdom. 🙂

    God Bless!

  8. thanks, sir jim! i hope so. i am not losing grip. praying for clarity and direction.

    thank you for the inspiring words. 🙂

  9. Hi Jim,

    This is Mayette again from New Zealand. My thoughts on money…I just pray to the good Lord that I should not be wanting so that I don’t have to steal to get by and not have too much so I forget to acknowledge where the blessings came from. I am truly grateful that New Zealand has given my family the chance to live a comfortable life. Having lived in a squatter’s area (behind the Department of Agriculture on North Avenue by the Quezon Memorial Circle) I am glad my kids could experience a better life.

    And no, I don’t think it would make any difference if you or I have taken a different career path. I already have taken three career detours- from being an architect to a resource planner/environmentalist and now a teacher. Today, I rate success as being entirely content and happy, not necessarily rich financially.

    Keep on writing! I enjoy reading your column.

  10. Hi Sir Jim. Thank you so much for this post. It’s so enlightening! I’m only 23 and I somewhat feel the burdens written here. People termed it Quarter Life Crisis (maybe for the benefit of the people of my age). Anyway, thank you again for this post. And thank you for the music!

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