A midlife crisis occurs when we become overwhelmed by the fierce realization of our own mortality. Aging eventually requires each one of us to vacate our youth. In a certain sense, we are pursued by a feeling of homelessness in midlife. As we begin to sense a loss of resilience in our body, our mind naturally begins to ponder the impermanence of life. As our youth takes up permanent residence in the past, our sense of identity, meaning, and purpose destabilize. This shift is, for some, the beginning of a crisis.
The Origin of the Midlife Crisis
The idea of a midlife crisis is a modern idea.
The term midlife crisis was coined by Canadian psychologist Elliot Jacques in his article “Death and the Mid-life Crisis” (International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 1965). He described it as, “the adult encounter with the conception of life to be lived in the setting of an approaching personal death.” The Telegraph – Obituaries: Elliot Jacques Jacques developed the idea of a midlife crisis as a result of examining the creative productivity of artists and composers. He observed a recurring pattern of change in style and output around the age of 35. Jacques also concluded that a midlife transition effects everyone in varying degrees.
In contrast, other researchers have denied the existence of a midlife crisis: “There is no specific time in life that predisposes you to crisis,” said Alexandra Freund, a life-span researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Her disagreement is focused on the use of age as a marker, coupled with the fact that the midlife passage or crisis is specific to Western culture.
Carl Jung viewed midlife as a critical point of transition in life, “which itself begins between the thirty-fifth and fortieth year.” He defined it as a period of time in which the true Self begins a process of separation from the ego (persona). He also characterized the second half of life as a time when people shift their attention from material acquisition toward the pursuit of meaning.
The midlife passage and midlife crisis refer to a quality of experience. The chronological timing of this experience is of less importance. The midlife passage is a phenomenon that is intimately connected with a quest for identity, meaning, and purpose in life. As we leave our youth behind, fierce truths about our existence here call out to us.
In midlife, mortality begins to whisper to us from the shadows of unseen places. As the midlife passage surrounds us, we begin to ask ourselves one of the great questions in life, “Have we been living a life worth living?”
A midlife crisis is an encounter with the midlife passage that has been hijacked by excessive fear and has the potential to become a potent destructive force in our life. It is an attempt to avoid passing through the inevitable, necessary, and essential threshold into the second half of life.
The essence a midlife crisis
The midlife passage is a mercurial phenomenon that invades our sense of identity and drags us into in a new awareness of life. To be in the middle of life is to be exposed to fierce truths about our existence here. In other words, midlife is a space of deep awareness and attention to the natural flow and cycles of life.
Being in midlife is not the same thing as being middle-aged.
There are two Greek words for “time.” “Chronos” is sequential, linear, and mechanical time; it refers the realm of mechanical clocks and calendars. “Kairos” refers to the depth of time; it is the space in which we create our sense of identity, meaning and purpose. Chronos is focused on counting, quantity, and amount; kairos is focused on interpreting, quality, and nature.
Modern society is founded on and obsessed with the cold procession of mechanical time. We have all but lost the feeling of the depth dimension of time. We are educated and conditioned to manage life in recurring sequences of hours, days, weeks, and months, and years. Time management is symptomatic of our obsession with chronos, or mechanical time. The guiding symbol of our modern time of life is the assembly line.
Being middle-aged is a reflection of chronos, a chronological period of time. For example, if our life expectancy is age 80, then middle-age occurs at age 40, the statistical halfway point between birth and death. The dry, mechanical, superficial, and dull sensibility this invokes is obvious.
Our sense of identity, meaning, purpose, vocation, authenticity, and belonging in life belong to kairos, the depth dimension of time. This is the real terrain of the midlife passage, as well as the potential source of a midlife crisis.
Chronos puts us to sleep; perhaps the midlife crisis is the shock of awakening to the depth dimension of time. And perhaps there is a tendency for this to happen during middle-age. Regardless of age, the midlife passage opens up in front of us when we become deeply conscious and aware of the depth dimension of time.
In midlife, the feeling of time begins to change and eventually ushers in a raw conversation with the primal elements of life.
Sometimes, the appearance of the depth dimension of time in our life can be shocking. Living life within the confines of mechanical time creates a strong foundation for the development of neuroses. Mechanical clock-driven time is a scourge on our quality of life. Eventually, the depth dimension of time will surge into our lives and crush our reliance on chronos. Kairos opens up a vast expanse of mysterious and unexplored territory that becomes the terrain of the second half of life.
The ground of our youth has disappeared, and we find ourselves falling deeper into time.
The midlife passage is a depth experience in life, which frequently appears in middle-age. It is a deep interior journey that often begins by being suddenly awakened in the midst of a dark wood, where the true way has been wholly lost.
The emergence of the midlife passage does not mean, however, that we are destined to experience a midlife crisis.
The word “crisis” originates in the Greek krisis meaning to decide, judge, or separate. When we are in crisis, we find ourselves in the midst of serious trouble and potential danger. How we manage through a crisis in life becomes a defining moment in our life. A life crisis is a period of intense and sometimes harsh suffering. The judgements we make determine the future course of our life. Sometimes a crisis will permanently separate what once was from what now must be.
A midlife crisis refers to the possibility of a dramatic failure to accept and negotiate the appearance of the midlife passage. The nature of this crisis originates in a turning away from difficult truths that we are afraid to begin a conversation with.
When we are in a midlife crisis, we suddenly find ourselves completely abandoned by our youth, while being driven by a deep inner anxiety to hold on to our youth at all costs.
A crisis of hidden potential and new possibility
Aging is the universal medium of a deep, internal conversation with our destiny. Inside the experience of aging lies hidden potential for deepening our relationship with the natural forces of life. The crisis of aging is not about our decline; the real midlife crisis is whether or not we can lift ourselves out of our cultural somnambulism in order to cultivate new possibilities for living.
In our youth, we tend not to feel the finite and fragile nature of life. When we are young, growing up is an expansive experience in which we are becoming an increasingly larger presence in the world. During the first half of life, “getting older” means expanding our participation and independence in society.
In midlife, the core meaning of “getting older” changes. We begin to sense the wildness of natural life. When we reach middle age we begin to feel a subtle sense of contraction in our body as the effects of senescence begin to attract more and more of our attention. In midlife, we realize that we are no longer “growing up” in the same way we used to.
By the time we reach middle-age, we have lived through a broad range of experiences that traverse approximately four decades. The limited experiences of our youth limit our grasp of life and often serve to shelter us from the more difficult realities of life, such as illness, career instability, loss, and death. Education systems, for example, embrace irrelevance and abstraction as a means to avoid the difficult truths about life.
We often enter into midlife completely unprepared for what we will find there.
Aging requires each one of us to move directly into the full force of raw, untamed, and natural life, and we begin our pilgrimage into fierce truths about our existence here from which there is no retreat.
Holding a deep conversation with aging is not for the faint of heart. The midlife passage requires us to turn and face directly into the raw truth of life; we must lose our youth. The loss of our youth is a source of tremendous existential fear, and being human we tend to avoid what we fear. If our fear is especially tenacious, the strength of our denial and avoidance creates the foundation for a midlife crisis.
In the midst of the midlife passage or crisis, we are disappointed to learn that authentic human concerns are an inconvenience to progress and economic development.
An authentic and truthful experience that is magical, mysterious, spiritual, soulful, or sacred is maligned by society as being superficial and superfluous. We exist in an age so completely dominated and overwhelmed by the bleak neon wail of capitalism that we have forgotten how to live with depth. Human culture has always suffered from a profound inferiority complex in the presence of natural life.
A toxic feeling of desperation is symptomatic of a midlife crisis.
We find ourselves trapped in our own discomfort. On the one hand, our current lifestyle has come to feel unsatisfying and lacking in meaning. On the other hand, we resist turning directly into the eye storm of midlife fearing we may not survive the truth that lies in wait for us. A crisis emerges, and we resort to desperate measures to attempt to escape or hide from the necessary transition.
In a certain sense, a midlife crisis is a failure to take responsibility for the midlife passage. A crisis is not a requirement of the transition we must undertake to enter into the second half of life. A midlife crisis is avoided by turning directly into the midst of our fears, as painful and distressing as they are, in order to see what is actually there.
A midlife crisis is a turning away from the raw, primal truth of our existence here.