On paper, it seems obvious that people should plan for a major shift in perspective that should occur just about the time they settle in to their relationships, their careers and their sense of personal achievement and well=being. That's all very fine to speculate about before the fact. Yet, a huge problem arises around the question of midlife because a) you don't know what you don't know and b) the criteria that you use to evaluate your life before midlife are made obsolete by it. Midlife involves not only a paradigm shift, but a values shift, as well, and that's what makes planning for it such a difficult assignment. Consider this: what good does it do you to calculate carefully the cost of driving your car (gas, maintenance, insurance, etc. ) when you suddenly decide you want to sell it and ride a bicycle to work every day?
Right now, you're planning and directing your future based on your specific life vision: in most cases, it's something that's been with you a very long time. That vision has been meticulously constructed over the course of your lifetime (up until now) and it provides you with an invaluable context in which you can live your life. From your vision, you derive a sense of purpose and direction, as well as your sense of what matters to you and what doesn't. The ‘crisis’ of midlife comes upon you when, for a variety of reasons, that vision no longer speaks to you. You find yourself in the situation where all those things that used to matter most to you now don't matter at all and things that you never even considered now appear as the most important things in your life.
When you, as an adult planning for the midlife transition, begin to take stock of what it's going to take to get you through it successfully, you need to take into consideration the fact that your priorities will change - and change drastically. Under ordinary conditions, the next step after creating your basic plan of action would be to do a risk assessment (formal or informal). This involves, first of all, taking an inventory of things that could happen along the way that could deflect you from your goal. The assessment involves deciding just two things for each eventuality: 1) how likely each event might be, and 2) how seriously each event might negatively impact reaching your desired ends.
A problem of crisis proportions arises when your goals and values change. Suddenly, everything that was orchestrated to see those goals through to completion loses its meaning and purpose. Everything loses its importance, and everything (or almost everything) that had once seemed out of the question winds up back on the table again. Once your life has lost its core meaning and direction, what sense will anything else have? How do you perform a risk assessment to determine the importance of any aspect of the future direction of your life when your entire value system is in flux? Up until this point, you've assumed that you knew what was important to you and what not, but now all that is up for grabs. You can assume no longer.
Performing a valid risk assessment at middle age puts many men into a serious conundrum: many, for the first time in their lives, have to reevaluate the basic assumptions of life, from “What do I really want?" to “What is really right (or wrong) for me?" Whereas women had their cultural models handed to them in from the post World War II era popular culture (magazines, films, books, TV, etc. ), and they've had over 60 years to critique and accept or reject them, men's cultural models haven't evolved nearly so drastically. Instead of the cultural revolution that women have fomented, men have been left to a more or less reactive role: trying to find how their cultural model ‘fits’ into a changing world. This has worked most often to their detriment.
Rather than critique their core views and values, men have too often either turned a blind eye to them, or put up some fairly severe emotional barriers to change. When masculinity is too rigidly defined as ‘Joe six pack’ or the ‘Blue Collar Comics’ ("Git ‘er done!"), then even exploring the deeper goals and values of life falls under a cultural taboo. And men pay a high price for this. When core values shift (as they must at midlife), and self-reevaluation is either culturally unsupported or even a taboo, the probability of suffering a true midlife crisis (and the disorientation that accompanies it) rises nearly to certainty. When your goals and values are gone, how do you plan? How do you calculate the risks of any potential course of action? Obviously, you can't.
If you want to know in advance what your midlife transition is going to cost you, you're going to have to be very clear about where you want to go and how you want to get there. It's going to take focus, and it's going to take embracing a bit of masculine counter-culture: being prepared to do some deep and hard self-examination. What are your core values? What are your motives? What's really important to you? Until you're ready to take the time and energy to engage yourself fully in this quest for personal meaning, the cost to you of an eventual midlife crisis may be too high to bear: it could cost you everything you hold near and dear and leave you with precious little apart from an empty or broken heart (yes, men have them, too). It's a price you really don't ever want to have to pay.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown