Should I have a midlife crisis?

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“Value this time in your life kids, because this is the time in your life when you still have your choices, and it goes by so quickly. When you’re a teenager you think you can do anything, and you do. Your twenties are a blur. Your thirties, you raise your family, you make a little money and you think to yourself, ‘What happened to my twenties?’ Your forties, you grow a little pot belly you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure, but it’s a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. Seventies, you and the wife retire to Fort Lauderdale, you start eating dinner at two, lunch around ten, breakfast the night before. And you spend most of your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yogurt and muttering ‘how come the kids don’t call?’ By your eighties, you’ve had a major stroke, and you end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand but who you call mama. Any questions?”

Mitch Robbins, as played by Billy Crystal in City Slickers (1991) 

(and he was only turning 39)

Let’s start with “midlife.”  As in, the middle of life.  Average life expectancy in the U.S. is 73.6 years for men and 79.4 years for women.  Women in my family tend to live well into their 90s, but when you factor in my less-than-healthy habits, I’ll probably break even.  So at 40, I am squarely in the middle of my life.  No one is more surprised by that fact than yours truly. 

While that does give one reason for pause, reflection, introspection — does it really call for a crisis?  According to Webster’s, a midlife crisis is defined as “a period of emotional turmoil in middle age characterized especially by a strong desire for change.”  Heck, that sounds more like the NFL offseason to me, but hardly a crisis.

The Washington Post had a great article this week about “the nines — 39, 49, 59 — those anxious years on the offramp of a decade. Those years of inching toward big, fat, round-numbered birthdays that are friends to no one. Those vulture-like harbingers of death.”   The author, Stefanie Weiss said “for me, 39 was a time of self-doubt, what’s-it-all-about and get-me-out.”  To be fair, she also had a 5 year old kid, a job she hated and flabby upper arms, none of which I share.

Now at 49, she says, her head is “full once again of profound and whiny thoughts about the meaning of life.”   Her second midlife crisis, she believes is the result of living in a society where “adolescence lasts for 15 years and midlife lasts from 35 to that time when you no longer care what people think of you or you get your first walker — whichever comes first.”  (Holy shit – I’ve been in midlife for the past 5 years??  Dammit!)

To test her theory, she asked five experts to explain or even verify the midlife crisis.  Responses ranged from “there is no empirical evidence for a midlife crisis” to midlife crises are the “a protracted panic reaction at the loss of youth.”

Some other gems from the article:

  • In her book “The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women,” Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger suggests that many women wake up one day with the realization that they’ve been sitting on deep, unfulfilled desires for adventure, love, artistic expression, spirituality and success in the world. Eventually, they can’t sit still any longer. “It’s all about anticipation that you’re going to die without having given expression to parts of yourself that you cherish.”
  • As we adapt to longer lives, we are inserting years into the middle of life, starting more new chapters, new relationships, new careers. “If you add a room to a house,” cultural anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson said, “it turns out to change the function of every room in the house. You don’t leave your tennis racket in the same place, you don’t drink your coffee in the same place. The flow of the whole house changes. The effect of increasing the size of the total house [adding years to life, for those who are metaphorically challenged] is to reconfigure it. It’s almost as if you were multiplying rather than adding.” In that scenario, Bateson said, “if people feel free to learn and grow and explore, maybe they don’t end up feeling trapped, and they don’t have to have a crisis at all.”

In this charmed yet challenging life that I lead, my desires for adventure, love, artistic expression and success have not gone unfulfilled.  Wrong or right, I’ve always expressed those parts of myself that I cherish.  From age 4 to 40, I still feel free to learn and grow and explore.

 Whew!  Crisis averted.

Go ahead and read the whole article:

Weather on the Eights, Angst on the Nines: Will Experts Validate This Theory?

By Stefanie Weiss
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; Page HE01
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