What exactly is a ‘mid-life crisis’? Having just past my 46th birthday, I feel like I should be and am decidedly in ‘mid-life’ (even if ’40 is the new 30’). I fully expect to live as long or longer than my hale and hearty grandfather who passed 90 so I am mathematically at the middle. While I don’t feel like I have hit any train wreck crises in my life (thankfully), I do see some palpable changes both in my life and in my contemporaries and I have caught glimpses of this mythic ‘mid-life crisis’. I’ve come to the conclusion that at the heart of mid-life crises is the death of dreams.
Hope is as essential as water, oxygen and food. It comes in all forms. As sacred as a faith and as mundane as a Megabucks lottery ticket. Everyone needs a lottery ticket. For some, it is following a dream in the arts and ‘being discovered’. For some, it is that hobby that might pay off. For some, it is winning a prize or milestone for a lifelong pursuit or passion. For some, it is saving and preparing for a special project like renovating a barn or a vintage car. And for some, it is as simple as playing Mega-Lotto. I understand that due to demographic appeal how most lotteries turn out to be the equivalent of regressive taxes, but they are also accessible, simple and relatively inexpensive hope for sale. They provide the same small dose of inspiration of ‘someday I might just win the lottery’ that others have with their more sophisticated dreams (eg. ‘some day my novel will be published…some day I will start my own business…’).
Actually, the real probabilities of any of these outcomes might all be equally remote, but that is beside the point. The point is the inspiration that thinking about their possibility generates. Having that glimmer of hope allows the mind to regale in imagining the world ‘if only…’. What it will feel like, what it will be like. Like many essential vitamins and minerals, hope does not need to be consumed in massive quantities, but often small trace amounts are enough to nourish the soul for the day. The probabilities might be small, but it is enough to be the difference between impossibility and possibility.
People also don’t necessarily demand their dreams to all come true overnight (though that is a nice thought). People do want to feel a sense of positive progression. Like the killer zinger from Ronald Reagan when he asked the American people, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” It is a fair question. Improving one’s lot in life is a part of all hopes and aspirations. It is especially central to the American Dream.
What I see among my middle age contemporaries is a resignation to a sense that the progression has halted, and then dreams falter on the appearance that ‘this is as good as it gets.’ From the wide eyed fantasies of youth, through the buoyant optimism of young adulthood, there is a pervading sense of, ‘things may not be perfect right now, but that’s okay because once I get promoted/get past this phase/get the kids off/pay these dues/etc. then everything will be what I dream of.’ However, at some point, many people start to realize that that vision of a better life or special achievement has really become unlikely beyond hope.
People wake up and think to themselves…I’m never going to be able to afford that dream home (I’ve been scrimping and saving for years and have a fraction of what I need). I’m never going to perform at Carnegie Hall or the Astrodome or Madison Square Garden (despite the hours and years of practice). I’m never going to finish that novel (despite reams of chapters littering my desk).
This principle hit home in a trivial way for me this year. One of my aspirations is to be physically fit enough to perform a range of sports at a highly competitive level (basketball, rowing). Part of my lifestyle to achieve this has been a regular regimen of fitness including strength training on weights. The nice thing about weight lifting is that it is a very objective measure of achievement.
I always remember that my in my youth my home town’s local football hero, Bernie Adell, was acclaimed for among other things being able to bench press 300 pounds. While a successful athlete myself continuing to compete into university, I always had this milestone (‘benchmark’ if you’ll forgive the pun) to be able to lift the same amount myself. At one point in my early twenties, I focused a particularly intense degree of training and final achieved this heroic amount with a great sense of self-satisfaction. Curiously, I did not continue to strive for higher and higher numbers. In fact, once I hit that target (after considerable extra effort), I let my training taper off considerably. Many people I know who have trained to ‘do a marathon’ describe a similar pattern.
While I continued to do weight training through the years to maintain my strength conditioning, the amount varied considerably with many things like a young family and a growing career competing for my time and energies. Still, a bit later in life, when kids and career where getting well established and personal circumstances afforded the opportunity for that extra push, one summer in my mid-thirties I trained particularly intensely and hit the 300 pound mark again. Not only was it a gratifying milestone, but at another level it was a bit like recapturing youth. Already in my thirties the signs of aging were starting introduce themselves to me, but psychologically I thought, ‘as long as I can bench press 300 pounds, I’m still young.’
Like the previous achievement, after hitting 300, I let the training slacken and focused more on other pursuits (I was starting to get back into rowing after many years). But I always had the ‘dream’. I always felt that at any time, I could focus myself, work my way up to 300 pounds and reclaim a bit of youth.
The ‘crisis’ came recently when I was suffering some shoulder problems in some routine training. I consulted a specialist who diagnosed ‘impingement’ which is a condition that happens as the tendons age causing the shoulder to be aggravated in its motion. I had a minor operation procedure to remedy the condition, but in scheduling it, my orthopaedic surgeon admonished me, ‘Now, Bruce, we can probably alleviate much of the problem and the symptoms, but you should also be ready for the prospect that you simply might not be able to do the things that you used to do.’ In other words, 300 pound bench pressing might be impossible for me forever.
You know, it’s been over ten years since I last bench pressed 300 pounds so the actual ability to do it is not that big of a thing to me. If it were, I would have invested more to maintain my ability to do it. But what did mean a lot to me was the ‘dream’ that any time I chose to I could go ahead and get back to that level. Now that dream has died.
So am I in a mid-life crisis over this realization. Not really. I do have to go through a bit of grief and transition letting it settle in that this chapter of my life – ie. achieving a certain level of strength fitness – is over. One goes through plenty of chapters in one’s life that means closing the door on a set of past experiences. High school. College. Dating. But with graduation, commencement and marriage the focus is on the bright set of new possibilities that overwhelms the sense of loss over the positive experiences of the past. However, with something like a limiting injury or other realization that progress is curtailed or prospects are remote, there is no explicit ‘positive’ to fill the gap.
Turning the adversity of the death of dreams to advantage is not much different to other hardships. The core principles of acceptance, learning and moving on persist.
Acceptance means coming to grips with these realisations that the outcomes might simply not turn out as hoped.
Moving on means replacing the old dreams with new ones. As it happens, my wife Lori bought me a set of golf lessons for Christmas and I have been enjoying trying this new challenge. Now instead of striving for the 300 pound bench press, I can work toward taking strokes off my game. She and I have also started running together. Now, I have always detested running for being the only thing more tedious than weight lifting, but running with her gives us a new activity to share and build a new type of aerobic fitness into our lives.
Learning in this context is recognising and savouring the transformation of dreams. In many cases, dreams don’t die…they simply morph into something nearly as inspiring – memories. These days, I spend as much time reminiscing with my wife as I do envisioning future possibilities. Both fill me good feelings and sustain me.
And an article with data substantiating the ‘middle life crisis’ with data on ‘happiness’ – ‘Middle Age is truly depressing, study finds’ (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22896014/) commenting "On average, they found, well-being bottoms out at about age 48 1/2 around the world…’It happens to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor, and to those with and without children,’ (Andrew )Oswald (at Britain’s Warwick University) said. “Nobody knows why we see this consistency. One possibility may be that people realize they won’t achieve many of their aspirations at middle age, the researchers said."
But the study also found that this drop was temporary in life. More of a ‘Dip’ in Seth Godin’s construct (http://brucelynnblog.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!B5C035B7809F740A!238.entry?&_c02_owner=1) stating, "After about age 60, those questions may be resolved. ‘The stormy part is over and you sort of come to terms,’ he said. The good news, according to the new study, is that if people make it to age 70 and are still physically fit, they are on average as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year old."
A fine follow up piece by Hugh with more colourful illustration of confronting the death of dreams: ‘New York Bartender Allegory’.
The power, of these dreams to these challenges, can only be met by your heart; your devotion to excel in your realisation of your endeavours. To bench press 300 pounds is not all what is life is about… it’s about forfilling one day after the next, day by day, week after week, one year onto the next year. Like a ribbon being made in time, your experiences write themelves into memory, you may ask yourself that why is it that they look like strong hands when I cannot do those things I used to… and the answer is never far away that people change as the go further into age as they move into other challenges in life; If you see it from most peoples perpectives, if you bench press 300 pounds every day, you might achieve this until late age, to take on other of lifes challenges the body may not be suited to your previous challenges as you progress. A strong man never loses his positional sense around him, whether at home, the office or at the Golf Club; a sense of knowing how far you can meet those challenges around him and most importantly when to relay on others to meet them with you, as many challenges cannot be met comfortably alone in those areas. The real answer you look for is back in that ribbon of memory made by time… you know your achievements, on with tomorrows challenges, even if that challenge is something new to you… because that is how life progresses into the better…