‘At one point, midway on our path in life When I had journeyed half of our life’s way Half way along the road we have to go I came to in a gloomy wood In the midway of this our mortal life’
Dante’s famous words may or may not have been about a mid-life crisis but they beautifully capture that stage of life when we might find ourselves in a ‘gloomy wood’ otherwise known as the ‘mid-life crisis’. It is a phrase I quite dislike: it mocks the privilege of being alive still when so many never made it to their later years. It erases the knowledge and wisdom born of decades. And in its place a bumbling idiot: a person who seems to have had a personality transplant and is intent on shocking and embarrassing loved ones with their selfish decisions. And though I try to resist stereotypes, the clichéd fast car does come to mind.
So what lies under the media-inflated caricature of the sad middle-aged person? The catchy phrase was the creation of psychologist Elliot Jaques in his1965 essay, ‘Death and the Mid-life Crisis’ but the concept goes back much further: Kieran Setiya, in researching for his book, ‘Midlife: A Philosophical Guide’ identified a text from Twelfth Dynasty Egypt (circa 2000 B.C.) as the earliest description of a mid-life crisis.
Chunking life into ‘stages’ is itself an ancient paradigm. In Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion dating back to over 4,000 years, a person develops through four separate stages or ‘Ashramas’. During the third stage - Vanaprasta Ashrama – a person begins to retreat from their worldly life and transfers their responsibilities to the younger generation. The aim is to lead a simpler life free of worldly attachments, encouraging reflection to look outward to the life already lived, and inward to find oneself. The parallels between this third life stage and the Western-world idea of ‘mid-life’ are clearly there.
For counsellors and therapists, the mid-life crisis appears in different guises, depending on which theorist’s lense is being looked through, but most therapists would agree I think, that it is a transitional stage in people’s lives. Carl Jung saw life as a series of stages with mid-life as a normal and critical transitional period in adult development. In stripped-back terms, if the first part of our life hones in on creating and building ourselves - education and experiences, job and careers, relationships and family, creating a home and acquiring things - it is very much focused on individual needs, it’s about the ‘me’. In the second part of life, there is a shift away from that to exploring and understanding things outside of the ‘me’ and gaining a deeper understanding of our lives. Between the two is the ‘middle adulthood’ stage when we contemplate questions about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Jung believed that with the right changes in middle adulthood, all can achieve long term satisfaction.
What does this middle phase of life actually feel like though? Full disclosure, I’ve travelled (and am still travelling) through this period of life myself. I have talked forever with friends, and worked with many clients exploring their pasts, presents and futures, all of which has unsurprisingly reinforced my understanding that the mid-life period is quite different for each of us. And no surprise again, we don’t all have crises... which leaves some question about how much of the mid-life crisis is a cultural construct enabling us to label ourselves?
I'm taking a view. I'm listening to my gut and I'm hearing the ancient wisdom. Given the history of religious and philosophical thinking on life’s stages, as well as my personal reflections, the concept of living life in stages chimes with me: it feels real, a paradigm that I can relate to when looking back or forward. But I also recognise that one pattern doesn’t fit us all: trying to fit a middle-aged person into the characteristics of mid-life isn’t how this works. Our life choices are disparate, and the ‘traditional’ family no longer exists in the same way. We travel more, work differently, have children later or not at all, and we have personal crises such as illnesses and losing loved ones – there are so many factors that can bend the paths we've been travelling on. I also believe the stages of life are not a linear process for all of us. I feel that some major impacts in our lives – changing gender, falling in love, adopting religion etc – can lead to a metaphorical rebirth and a new life journey, and mid-life gets postponed or stepped over entirely.
My optimistic self would remove the word ‘crisis’ and replace it with ‘opportunity’ or ‘privilege’ and there is plenty of research evidencing how people flourish at that time in their lives. But for many of us, the middle stage of life does feel like a crisis as we reflect on what we were and who we didn’t become, what we had aimed for and what we achieved. We find ourselves as the oldest person in the office and not comfortable with it. We look at our relationships and can’t find the fire. Some of us long for things we had in our youth: freedom, choices, enthusiasm, and parts of our own personality that have long vanished. Our thoughts feel dark...
I’m worried about getting old and dying. I don’t want this relationship anymore but don’t know how to get out of it. I don’t know who I am anymore, I’m buried under being a spouse and parent. I feel bored and stuck and in a rut. I need to change things right now, while there’s still time. I’ve lived for everyone except myself. Is this all there is?
There may be regret and confusion. Reflecting on our lives can evoke many deep and painful emotions: anger, grief, self-doubt, disbelief and desperation. We can feel growing periods of sadness, increased anxiety, a disconnection from others – feelings of distress not to be ignored... feelings of distress which can be healed.
Healing is within us all. Freud believed that self-analysis was the key to insight; Carl Rogers believed that we carry within us, the resources necessary for self-understanding. The space to talk, reflect and create meaning out of chaos is time spent at the 'mind-gym' where our inner selves are bettered. We all have the potential to live the latter parts of our lives with great richness and happiness. Part of that comes from knowing ourselves and accepting ourselves. And perhaps that is the work we must all do.