How to Have a Midlife Crisis

When it comes to surviving middle age, sometimes a man has to lose his bearings to find his way

Ever since Erik Erikson coined the term "midlife crisis" more than 30 years ago, male melancholy around halftime has been poked and prodded six ways to whaddya say. Theories abound. At the bio-extreme is the idea that the midway heebie -jeebies are hardwired, a hormonal analogue to female menopause. The skeptics believe that the 40s funk is just a self-fulfilling prophecy for self-indulgent guys.

The idea of a midlife crisis offends a man's up-and-at-'em American aesthetic. And given all the therapeutic silliness that gets sold as midlife fixes, it's tempting to dis the male willies as psycho-bunk. Bad idea. Male midlife crisis is a time-honored trough, described by Dante and Shakespeare and endured by citizens no less manly than Ulysses S. Grant, who only saved the republic before his swoon, and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who got a mite moody after his meander on the moon.

"There are multiple paths through midlife crisis," says Jacquelyn James, Ph.D., associate director of the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe College. Each man's journey is unique, shaped by his history and his hopes, his relationships, his blood pressure, and the angle of his dangle. To be sure, the intensity of the midlife passage varies greatly. For some men, it's a dark ordeal that includes depression and is best navigated with a doctor's help. For most, it's a less perilous, but still demanding, midcourse correction. But whether the midlife transit is traumatic or just tricky, self-medication with bourbon is a bad plan, and nobody is served by pretending we're too tough to have troubles.

Our goal is to come through middle life as better men. Sure, we'll be a tick less quick off the dribble, and yes, we'll need to rely on guile once in a while. But we'll also be wiser, calmer, stronger of spirit, and even more attractive to women of all ages. There are no perfect routes to your best older self. But we asked experts and some men we admire for guiding thoughts to ease the transit

What the Hell is a Midlife Crisis?

Justice Stewart's wisdom about pornography applies to midlife, too: tough to define, but you know it when you're in it. Men in the muddle often use words such as "aimless," "confused," "lost." Previously surefooted guys come to question things in which they once believed -- marriage, work, and friendships. Some men report losing their vitality, their joy in things they used to savor. In the book Fly-fishing through the Midlife Crisis, the New York Times executive editor Howell Raines describes this feeling as "disappointment and restlessness that tiptoe in on little cat feet."

Here's a symptom sampler: insomnia, fatigue, despair, morbidity, inability to concentrate, ruefulness about roads not taken, dread that life holds no more surprises, regrets, sharp longing for something (a gunmetal Porsche, a cigarette boat) or someone (the FedEx woman, Gina, whose smile is a promise of overnight delivery). Men in crisis often obsess about big questions, as in, "Does my life matter?"

"Many men start to think in terms of how little time they have left," says James. In severe cases, men fantasize about just lighting out, shucking off their old lives and starting over in the South Pacific or the Sawtooth Range. At 36, the world's our oyster, but by 44, we're trapped inside the oyster, gasping for air.

The midlife stew often starts with some garden-variety boredom. If you've been hoeing the same row for 20 years, only an idiot wouldn't wonder if there aren't some more interesting rows somewhere else. On top of tedium, we often get our first bolt of serious bad news: the death of a parent, trouble in a marriage, a career setback, the transformation of the 8-year-old who thought you were God into the adolescent who thinks you're the devil. Crushing chest pain and the word "biopsy" can set a fellow to thinking about what he's done with this life.

Often, come our 40s, some undeniable facts start eroding the dubious pillars on which we've built our notion of a man.

Beloved male Myth #1: Real men are strong and studly. New Midlife Fact: We're sorta strong and sorta studly.

Make no mistake, guys in their 40s can still take the ball to the hole. (Note: Midlife passage may even be easier if you're fit.) But still, the machine is showing some mileage. Your time for the 100 meters is now closer to 20 seconds than to 10. Old Faithful is a tad less rigid and less quick to reenlist. Some gray hair and wrinkles are whispers of mortality, signs that we've started down the mountain's far side.

Beloved Male Myth #2: Men are successful. New Midlife Fact: Some men are more successful than others.

"At midlife, many men come face-to-face with the aspiration-achievement gap," says Orville G. Brim, Ph.D., director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, in Vero Beach, Florida. It slowly dawns on us that we'll never solemnly swear to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, write that rock-opera sequel to Tommy, or maybe be a father. Our big boyhood dreams have been precious, and it's easy to feel like a failure once it's clear they're dead. But even if you've realized your ambitions, another myth is often tattered at midlife....

Beloved Male Myth #3: Professional success will make you happy. New Midlife Fact: Don't bet on it.

Even lots of alpha guys who've won the work game start to see it as one very stupid game. They've reached the Promised Land, but the milk tastes funny and there ain't no honey. "Suddenly, it's as though the rules you've played by have been declared invalid," says Kathleen Pajer, M.D., of the University of Pittsburgh department of psychiatry. "It sets a crisis in motion because your long-held beliefs are clashing with the reality of your feelings."

This isn't easy. "Any man who attempts a radical critique of his life at 40 will be up against parts of himself that have a strong investment in the present structure," says Daniel J. Levinson, author of The Seasons of a Man's Life. If you're this close to finally making partner and shaking the money tree, it takes courage to admit that you hate the law, that it's draining the life from you. Still, it's got to be done. We have to refuel somehow, to reimagine our lives for the second half.

The secret is to become a self-seeker. Though the psycho-brains differ on details, there's general agreement that we have to move toward authenticity, toward an expression of our uniqueness. "We must attempt to sculpt our identity," says Dr. Pajer, "and find our unique place in the world." Carl Jung, the Swiss sultan of psyche, called the process individuation, or the coming to self.

Here's the quickie version of Jung's model. In youth, we assemble a persona, a public face that helps us get along -- cope with junior high, trick women into bed and the boss into giving raises. Behind this mask, we suppress all our neuroses, dreads, and the stuff that's too dark, artistic, or just plain odd for polite company. As long as things go well, this works. But once the persona starts screwing up (e.g., lets us get fired or divorced), all those stifled secrets, once willing to shut up, start shouting up from the basement. To move from young man to Mr. Maturity, we've got to (1) hear those till-now smothered voices, and (2) do at least some of what they tell us to. The trick, by Jung, is to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona. Time to set the self free.

Warning! Do not start celebrating your eccentricities. Footwear in public remains a requirement. And although yipping like a dachshund may help you vent, it often leads to exit interviews. Setting free the self just means starting to flex some of the muscles that are uniquely ours, kicking at least a few of the conformities that funnel us toward sameness and so subdue our spirits. Here are some new ambitions we should strive toward:

1. Give Lancelot Love Handles

Some psychologists advise moving beyond what they call heroic thinking. By that, they mean the phallic, ride-to-the-rescue, assert-your-will inclination of young manhood. There's probably wisdom in this thought. But why give up that beloved word, "heroic." Better to tweak the ideal a touch, cast Lancelot as older and wiser, less jouster than judge. Granted, it's no snap to see middle age as swashbuckling. The cliche of the diminished middle-aged man --ineffectual, riddled with doubt -- is deep-rooted. But it's also ridiculous. Try swapping the merely muscular, boyish traits of youth for this anthology of autumnal virtues: prudence, patience, experience, wisdom, kindness, temperance, judiciousness, tenacity, perspective, coolness, and style. You could build a big shot from these beatitudes.

2. Throw the Boy Overboard

Hey, dingdong, the boy is dead. And so are his dreams. It's important to admit they're gone, sit shivah for a while, and then move on. Yes, grieving is required. But if we cling to the persona of youth (in Jung's phrase, "prop up the corpse"), we'll find ourselves trapped in regret and nostalgia for the past. Wrap the lad in an oilskin, slip him over the gunnels, salute a helluva fella, and chart a new course.

3. Write a New Mission Statement

We've got to find a new motivating mythology. "As he attempts to reappraise his life, a man discovers how much it has been based on illusions," says Levinson, "and he is faced with the task of de-illusionment." Levinson is careful not to use the word "disillusionment," with its implication of cynicism and despair. De-illusionment is not surrender, but rather a modification of our long-held dreams. "The challenge for the midlife man," adds Brim, "is to adapt to the closing down of possibilities, to the new realities of his life. It's perfectly okay to lower your level of aspiration, to give up an early goal and substitute something else.”

Okay, maybe the Oval Office is a reach, but school board may still be on the radar screen. Adapt. Modify. Don't panic. Invent new goals. Remember that '60s slogan: "Think globally, act locally." Aspire to achievements in your backyard, small ambitions that are within your arms' reach.

 Bad Idea #1: Plastic Surgery

No hair weave. No lobe lifting, eye nipping, wrinkle smoothing. Consider this list of names: Churchill, Tutu, Lombardi, Einstein, Schwarzkopf, Pope John Paul II. Not a liposucker among them.

Cautionary Thought:

Try small changes before you blow up your life. It could be that to find happiness, you'll have to move to Montana, become polygamous, and start tagging wolves. But more likely, nothing so drastic will be required. After all, if your house needs a coat of paint, you don't tear it down and start from scratch. So your first self-seeking step shouldn't be to quit your job and blow your nest egg on berets, smocks, and easels.

Take baby self-steps first. Spend a Saturday working on the seascape that's been calling you for years. See where it leads. Sometimes little fixes can mean a lot. It's important to resist the inclination to just bug out, says Brim. "It can be a useful illusion, a daydream to carry one through, but it doesn't solve the problem."

4. Dance with Darth Vader, Turn Into a Soul Man

The move to selfhood requires a genuflection in the direction of our dark sides, all of our most severe secrets. Enough of this prissy Pollyanna pose. You've got to cop to the hurtful stuff, both the pain you've endured and the pain you've caused.

Maybe your old man didn't give a damn about you, diminished you daily with that deadly glance. Maybe you've done the same to your boy. Maybe you wasted your youth in a stupid job or married the wrong girl or betrayed your brother. Maybe you're not real bright or brave or blessed. Whatever your confession, make it. Swallow what's bitter in the cup, and move ahead bearing all the burdens that are yours.

Our wounds are our uniqueness. Remember Tolstoy's wisdom that "all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The psychotherapist Thomas Moore argues in his book Care of the Soul, "Soul power may emerge from failure, depression, and loss." To deny our dark feelings is to cut ourselves off from what he calls "the gifts of depression." He's not recommending the pall of diagnosable depression but simply saying that a Rotarian, sunny-side-up persona is false and traps us in a limiting innocence.

"The sadness of growing old is part of becoming an individual," he writes. "Melancholy thoughts carve out an interior space where wisdom can take up residence."

Gail Sheehy puts it this way in her best-selling book New Passages: "The spirit finds an opening in the brokenness."

5. Express Yourself, Anger and All

Nobody is suggesting that every hostile thought should get fired across the port bow. We've got to live together. But part of becoming a fully grown man is saying what's on your mind, respectfully, without rancor, straight up, no ice. It may not be a good idea to be completely honest with your boss; the phrase "odious autocrat" can be a bad career move. Ditto "spineless sea slug" and "obese cuckold." But when the mortgage payment isn't at risk, it might help to be ever-so-slightly less eager to please. Speak your piece. Forgo an excess of politeness. Conflict is rarely catastrophic; it's just the sound of life happening.

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6. Become a Girlie Man

Listen for a second. No need to develop an obsession with shoes, but take a second look at some virtues normally associated with our mothers, sisters, and wives. It's a psycho-truism that, as we age, women and men get more like each other. They get more assertive; we get more interested in relationships. Pardon the expression, but go with that flow.

Start to move from conquesting to caretaking. Consider Thoreau's wimpy wisdom: "The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe." Slowly segue from hunter to farmer. Practice husbandry.

Encouraging Thought:

Sadat and Begin got to Camp David. In youth, Anwar and Menachem were fighters, sworn ancestral enemies, fierce on behalf of their cause. And yet when their arcs ended on the White House lawn with a handshake and an olive branch replacing an Uzi, nobody questioned their cojones. Aspire to make the transition from warrior to wise man.

Psychotherapist Erikson suggests that middle-aged men aspire to "generativity," meaning they should find ways to be of use to the next generation. But it can work in the other direction, too. Start to see your mother and father as the old and vulnerable people they are. Step up, pally boy. You're a grown man.

7. Leave a Legacy At middle age, we start to think about our legacy.

A fellow wants to leave a footprint or two on the beach. A good-natured child is a legacy. So is a multinational company or the O'Neill Center for Public Policy and Baseball Studies at Yale. But legacies don't have to be carved in granite or traded on the big board. At midlife, it helps to start working on what you'll leave behind.

Get started on that novel. You're no wordsmith? Okay, build that deck off the kitchen. You're all thumbs? Okay, fire the guy who blows the leaves around and do it yourself. Apply your effort, your muscles, your sweat, not just your money, to your home's care. Anything you do to resist the Second Law of Thermodynamics--the one that says things tend to fall apart--is an assertion of your presence on this earth and so, self-celebrating. A well-tended house is a legacy. So is a story your children pass on to your grandchildren. The key, wrote Ernest Becker in the landmark book The Denial of Death, "is to fashion something--an object or ourselves--and drop it into the confusion, make an offering, so to speak, to the life force."

8. Throw Out the Map Men take flak for being goal-oriented.

You've probably heard that we should enjoy the journey (foreplay) more and stop focusing so much on the destination (hallelujah). Best defense: If Lewis and Clark hadn't had a goal, the French would own Vegas. Still, the charge is not without merit. We do tend to barrel by some scenic overlooks that would be worth a glimpse.

Don't be so straight ahead, so sure you know where you're going. Be like free-market capitalists, pro-growth but not determined to grow in any particular direction. Sheehy cites the Chinese notion that a mature person is a ball, rolling with life's ups and downs but always centered unto itself. Levinson argues that it's continuing evolution, and "not the attainment of any particular final state," that is "the essence of human development." Jung used the image of the tree, growing around rocks and purposelessly up toward the sun, to describe this open-minded growth.

9. Stop Making Sense

We're a cause-effect bunch of guys. We like things that make sense. If the Lakers have 97 and the Bucks 96, Lakers win. Rules are clear. But the fact is, if we're ever going to fully appreciate this trip called being human, we're going to have to learn to swim around in more ambiguous waters. If we constantly cut to the chase, are always bottom-lining everything, we're going to miss some intriguing steps along the way.

Don't get flummoxed by illogical things or expect people to make sense. Love and hate make no sense. Why should the stuff in between? The young man is undone by uncertainty; the middle-aged sage is not. He savors the oddness of other humans. Don't be so sure that the Western, Aristotelian, mechanistic rendition of reality tells you all you need to know.

10. Seek Sensuality

Nope, sorry, this is not permission to act on those frisky feelings about Fiona from finance; just a reminder that the routinization of life saps our energy. Jolt yourself awake with jaunts off the tracks. Seek new textures, tastes. Try new foods (enough with the chili--eat a kiwi, or something from Africa). Try reading a book, maybe two, maybe even one written by a woman. Or better yet, by a Latina woman. Get respectful of legends in areas other than sports, war, and money. You're bored because you haven't learned anything new since the Ayatollah put the kibosh on Carter.

Take up a new sport. (If it's whitewater kayaking, try a sit-on-top first, and get a good helmet.) Any new skill or competence -- cooking, gardening, carpentry, car care, golf, guitar, or origami -- makes the spirit more receptive. Get outside. Fluorescent light is stealing your spunk. Walk in the woods or even down your street at dusk or dawn. There is consolation in nature, inspiration in oblique angles of light.

Bad Idea #2:

Don't throw money at midlife. The Ferrari won't help. Nor will that titanium driver with the huge sweet spot. There's no talismanic cure. "We deny our own sense of failure," says Levinson, "by using narcissistic pleasures as a device for reassurance." Put away the credit card; it'll just add double-digit interest rates to the other stressors. The only answer, wrote Jung, is to turn directly toward the approaching darkness and "find out what it wants from you."

Stay Strong,

Brett Place

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