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.