I’m no expert in the mid-life crisis, being in the midst of one and not having yet come out on the other side to write sagely of the hazards and rewards of the journey for those just setting out. The only advice I can offer to those considering their own midlife crisis is this: Just don’t. Adopt a shelter pet. Learn a language. Take a bubble bath or a trek on the Appalachian Trail or a double martini or a rain check or a nap. Really, do anything to yourself but this. End of advice.
A midlife crisis forces you to re-evaluate every decision you made in the past that brought you where you are today, combined with the gut-wrenchingly frightening knowledge that you may have fewer years of healthy, active life in front of you than behind. In a culture that glorifies youth and salivates for stories of second acts and redemption, a midlife crisis is a confrontation with the painful fact that it really is too late to begin certain things. You can still run for Congress, but it’s too late to be a neurosurgeon. If you have not already done Nobel-worthy work in mathematics, you probably won’t. And while many, many mistakes are remediable, a midlife crisis helpfully points out the ones that are not, the consequences that are forever.
If you are the kind of person who has always been waiting for life to really begin, bad news: it’s half over.
The popular culture informs me that certain easily-distracted people sail through their midlife crises with the aid of a new wardrobe, a little red sports car, or a light-hearted dalliance with someone for whom getting carded when buying alcohol is not worthy of a status update. I don’t even know whether to envy these people, if, in fact, they exist. I have faith that asking questions this hard, and really listening to the answers, is worthwhile, that some kinds of suffering yield growth, but really, maybe I should have at least given the Corvette a shot. Maybe it doesn’t pay to be a snob.
From midlife, it seems outrageously unfair that some kid who lacked information, experience, and, at times, basic common sense was permitted under American law to make decisions about health, career, relationships and money whose results you wake up to every morning. That young person chose friends, a college major, a way of dealing with family members, rules of engagement in the world, and lovers with her own needs in mind. You, the middle-aged future self, barely crossed her mind, if she could conceive of your existence at all.
Some mistakes, happily, yielded lifelong benefits: a friend who made a disastrous, dangerous marriage found after escaping it that she knew exactly the kind of man she was looking for. It made her subsequent dating brutally efficient. Another who had a brush with the criminal justice system after age 18 realized that he must never again do anything to jeopardize his freedom, and never has. Many made false starts in careers they hated, and then dared to find work that satisfied them. Some of the risks we took gave us the courage we needed for further challenges. Others, we were lucky to escape with our lives.
At midlife, we’re grateful for the short walks down the wrong paths that revealed the right ones shining before us, especially when we remember that some people were not as lucky. Their younger selves tried drugs that became addictions, alienated people who could have been mentors and allies, got stuck in careers that made them miserable and that they can no longer escape, stayed with the lovers they should have broken up with, or left the lovers they should have married. They ignored symptoms they should have paid attention to. They trusted the wrong people. They fell into habits that they can’t break, or took physical or emotional risks that damaged them for life. Or, worse, they took no risks at all. We all know people like this. At midlife, if they’ve survived that long, they have every reason to hate the kid who, with depraved indifference to the human lifespan, landed them where they are today.
But hating that kid, or even being lastingly irritated at her, is a waste of energy. What did you expect? Unless she was raised in a traditional culture, the message she received was, “It’s your life. Do exactly what you like with it.” She may have been paralyzed with choice or confident that she knew everything, or maybe, poor creature, both. Haven’t we all had the fantasy of going back in time, meeting that younger self in a bar, and giving her The Message, some incredibly important, impossibly abstract advice that you wish you had heard at the crucial moment? “Trust yourself,” or “Follow your dreams in your twenties and make decisions in your thirties,” or “Heal yourself first, then worry about everyone else.” What is she supposed to do with that? If you recall, she attended a number of graduations, ate dinner with the family, watched Oprah, read books, attended school and religious instruction and softball practice, all of which gave her ample opportunity to profit from the insights of older people who only wanted the best for her. She got plenty of advice, even without the benefit of time travel. Pardon her for forgetting it, misinterpreting it, or hearing exactly what she wanted to hear. You were like that when you were younger. Maybe you still are.
She was free to choose, and the mid-life crisis is a long-term ownership cost of her freedom. Real freedom, when people truly exercise it to create a life they believe is worth living, is a risky, dangerous principle, which is why so few people embrace it. At midlife, we’re still free, only the choices have narrowed. In some respects, the winnowing can be a relief. You can set goals, finally, based on realistic knowledge of your strengths, and work around the weaknesses that, if you haven’t overcome them by now, you probably can’t. Your dreams are yours now, not those of your parents or of that younger self who didn’t know half of what you do, and you’ll discover dreams you may really be able to achieve and enjoy. Maybe you’re never going to parachute behind enemy lines and save civilization from evil, but you might try skydiving, or even better, vanquishing some of the traces of evil within yourself.
Midlife is when you enjoy the fruits of that younger self’s good decisions and stoically sweep up the broken glass of everything she accidentally smashed. Try to love her and forgive her, if you can. She made the best decisions she could with her limited information, her lack of experience, and her embryonic wisdom, just as you must do now at midlife, and keep on doing for as long as you can, but—you know this, now—not forever.
(Nota bene: English, as of this morning, still lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and the second person is annoying when overused. Where I’ve used “she,” please feel free to substitute “he,” if that more accurately reflects your current frame of mind or anatomy.)