Are you in crisis or a narcissistic jerk?

In this article, Dr. Richard A. Friedman writes, “There is no handier excuse for human misbehavior than the midlife crisis”. I love this guy.  

I am turning 40 this year. Despite a few idiosyncrasies that accompany an anxious personality, I am balancing on the pinnacle of my midlife quite well. I am not leaving my husband for a lesbian lover or trading in the family wagon for that red Trans Am with an eagle on the hood.

In conducting fifteen minutes of highly scientific Internet research, I discovered that I am not alone. Carl Jung once explained that middle-aged people enjoy life when they drop the roles they were playing and outgrow their pretenses.  In one oldie-but-goodie study funded by the MacArthur Foundation, researchers found most participants reported an increased sense of well-being and control in middle age. Some reported actually feeling liberation in situations considered a “crisis”, such as the death of a parent, the end of a relationship, or running out of Abercrombie & Fitch in a cold sweat, never to return.

Loss in midlife can actually bring freedom from sinking your time, identity and dreams into another’s life. For women in particular, midlife can be an awakening. In her work,Sue Shellenbarger found that women “spend a good deal of our life taking care of everyone else. We come to the place where we say, ‘It’s my turn.'”

But hold on. There is a new study in town (2007) using data from a significantly larger, cross-cultural sample. It finds an “extraordinarily consistent international pattern in depression and happiness levels” that demonstrates middle age is indeed miserable. The researchers describe a “U-shaped” life pattern, indicating that people are happier in the beginning and later years of their lives, with a decline in mental health and happiness in midlife. This pattern occurred across cultures, genders, marital status, class, and for those with and without children. The authors believe this actually stems from something inside human beings rather than from the difficult situations that rise in midlife.

Well that just blows my theory all to hell. I was going to hypothesize that the “midlife crisis” was a luxury of self-indulgence affordable only to middle- and upper-class Americans. How in most cases it’s a classic demonstration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that given worldwide poverty rates most 40-50 years olds are focusing on family survival, not personal life goals. I was going to again quote my buddy Dr. Friedman, “…you have to admit that ‘I’m having a midlife crisis’ sounds a lot better than ‘I’m a narcissistic jerk having a meltdown.”

Damn those Warwick and Dartmouth professors and their access to 2 million people in 80 countries. I suppose their research techniques were more thorough than mine too. I admit defeat. The midlife crisis is real and it is universal.  And I was so happy.

So what I WILL protest is this flagrant use of the word “crisis”. Most research points to a downward dip that occurs gradually, not in a single year. Crisis, to me, insinuates a quick and traumatic life change. An emergency. A mudslide tearing through your uninsured home. A child abduction. But to address this slow and chronic decrease in mental health as a crisis may lead most sufferers to take drastic measures, (i.e. the illicit affair inside the red Trans Am with the eagle hood) rather than more appropriate, slow and lasting steps toward happiness.

And that’s where I think Americans generally differ from midlifers in other cultures. There is an innate sense for most humans between the ages of 40-50 that life IS half over. It is time to decide if the path we are on will lead us to die happy. And it’s time to make some changes if the answer to that question is “no”.

But our culture is notorious for the quick fix. We take this opportunity for introspection and lock it in the basement with the dirty kitty litter box. “Crisis!!!” we cry. Run away, run away!! Stop the wrinkles. Tuck the tummy. Sex it up! Where’s my pills? Midlife suffering is universal, but WE will work our damnedest to find the cure.  

Like the kitty box, its time to buck up and scoop the chunks of poop out of your life. We are not immune. Death looms, and that sucks. Now, how are you going to handle it?

Personally and professionally, I KNOW depression is serious business. Midlife may be the breaking point for some, and that is very, very scary. And with most mental illness, I believe there are a small percentage of people who will truly suffer a midlife CRISIS and need professional help. The rest of us are merely uncomfortable with the anguish and fear that an honest evaluation of our current life brings. Rather than delve into and identify the pain, we smooth it over. We replace it. We hide it.

Most of us probably handle true crises better than sloth-like chronic issues. I do. It is easier to fix the moment than to fix the soul.

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron acknowledges that we don’t like aging. We change our appearances in order to “miraculously escape the truth of impermanence”. But life is not permanent, nor is your youthful body, nor your once-passionate relationship. She suggests that once we relax wholeheartedly into the obvious truth that we are changing, we can become happy with ourselves. We begin to “understand that we’re not the only one who can’t keep it all together”. I love Buddhist nuns.    

Hey, two million people in 80 countries can’t be wrong. No one escapes the uncertainty that time brings. It’s okay to be scared. It IS possible to redefine crisis. Die happy.  

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