Millions of people face huge changes in their lives during the midlife years and most seem to be glad they made the changes, but only if they’ve faced their own longings for meaning with integrity. Midlife can be defined as anywhere from 35 to 60, but usually comes on around the mid-forties or later. It’s built into our psyches, just as other developmental stages at other ages are pre-programmed. Not everyone will experience it as an apparent period of change, though. Some women, and men too, just sense a slight change of priorities, values and perhaps a slight adjustment of goals if they recognize their midlife dilemmas at all. If you’re one of the ones that are turning your life upside down, be not afraid.
An external event; divorce, a child leaving home, changes on the job, a death of a parent or friend or something else may trigger your midlife crisis, or it may be nothing but your thoughts driving you into making huge changes. We all resist change, to some degree. It can be scary; especially if you don’t know what it is you’re longing for exactly or you are committed or somewhat satisfied in the life you’re living.
So, what is the question we face as we enter midlife? Well, there isn’t usually just one. There are many for a lot of people. What is the meaning of my life? Who am I really? Am I living the best possible life for me? What if I do this now, or that now? What do I want or feel I need? What do I need to be the most content, the most satisfied with my life?
Be not afraid. These are excellent questions to ask yourself. As human beings, we need to ask ourselves these questions in order to grow. If you’re a woman, you may be more open to the idea of personal growth. For traditional western men, though, in particular, the idea of growth may be resisted with a vengeance.
Resistance to growth can cause as much havoc, maybe more, in one’s life than otherwise just settling down to a good, long think about those critical questions of midlife. Take the man who spends the family savings on a new Mercedes convertible or takes up with the pretty, young secretary. Please take him, as a female Rodney Dangerfield might say. Probably without being really aware of it, these men avoid the real issues and just act. Unfortunately, when they’ve usually lost the people who really love them the most, their savings and maybe their careers, they look back with great sorrow and recognize their failures. Women sometimes do the same thing; buy the fancy car, make a big career change, join the Peace Corps or move to Tahiti, and regrets will be their legacy if they haven’t done their real work of sorting out the questions.
So, how do we know if we’ve really answered our inner midlife questions with honesty and integrity? We don’t, not with any empirical certainty. That’s where a lot of us get stuck. Some of us just give up and quietly weather the internal storm without making any changes to our lives. Others of us just react to our feelings without really thinking. Where a lot of us get stuck and into the most trouble, creating a huge and messy midlife crisis, is in not recognizing that it is what we think that causes our feelings. For instance, if I think my husband is just an old codger, I’ve given up on him and won’t think as well about how I might understand him better and communicate better with him. If Bill thinks his secretary is sexier than his wife and he wants to revitalize himself sexually, he may make the play for the secretary, may even call it love. These are tricks of the mind.
The key for many people who make it through the midlife years without causing too much damage to themselves and others, and often make better lives for themselves, is recognizing that midlife is a stage and must be addressed with that one essential question, “What do I know, in my heart of hearts, will be the most meaningful path for my life now?" If you believe in God, this question may be better phrased as, “What does God really want of me?" Not to make it sound like an easy question, but this is the query that needs to be seriously considered, often for months or even years. This takes a healthy respect for your own intuitive sense, your spiritual side, or for God. What will be the most meaningful, or provide the most lasting, satisfaction for me? How will I feel about my life, looking back from my deathbed?
The surest way to avoid the question is to make superficial changes or refuse to change at all. The new car, a change of wardrobe, the pretty secretary or a quick move to the beaches of Tahiti won’t give many, if any, of us that meaning we long for in midlife. Pulling in the reins and clamming up to shut out the question doesn’t work for most either. While the Mercedes may give you some type of joy for awhile, it’s the same as eating a box of chocolates when you’re anxious or sad. The benefits don’t last and the downside can be painful.
Resolving a midlife crisis with integrity also means sharing the process with your life partner, if you have one. Going it alone, when you have committed to a life partnership, unfairly excludes the partner. It’s, to put it plainly and simply, cheating. This takes really opening up with your partner. It means you must share all of the questions whirling about in your head and heart. Whether the partner can and will choose to join you in the process and whether it means you stay together or split the sheets, you will at least know you’re headed on the path that is meant for you. If it means you have to part, then, it’s your responsibility alone to find and live your meaningful life. It will be your partner’s responsibility to do the same for him or her self. If you have honestly tried your best to share it, you won’t have to live with the destruction, guilt and grief afterwards. If she or he does join you on the quest, you’re likely to find that you’ve done the best possible thing for yourself, your partner and your partnership while finding your path.
Be not afraid. While it may mean big changes, a midlife crisis that is resolved by recognizing the real answer to the meaning of your life, and then making that meaning your active life purpose, is a life lived well.
Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, is a freelance writer and author of four published books, many articles, short stories and a novel in process. She is also the editor of the Midlife News, a free ezine available for viewing or subscription at her website: http://jolynwellsmoran.com . Jolyn writes for publications, non-profits, individuals and others for reasonable rates and always meets deadlines. She lives alternately in Washington State and France. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .