“Midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Tearing down the walls that we spent our entire life building is death. Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that, there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth.” - Brené Brown
We’ve all heard the term “midlife crisis.” Some might associate the phrase with the man who buys the fancy red sports car or leaves his wife for a younger woman. Midlife might also be thought of as the woman, who after decades of raising kids, decides it’s finally time to get her body (and life) back - She joins the gym, hires the trainer and gets plastic surgery to feel the vitality and freedom of youth once again. Though there are countless connotations and instances, these examples point to the stereotypical reaction for many to the midlife crisis – a change of personal or material circumstance.
In some ways, society sees such changes as positives. It’s considered noble to improve your body at any age. It’s thought of as admirable to find new love even if it’s at the expense of your previous love. And in our culture, red sports cars, while maybe a bit douchey, are highly coveted.
But regardless of the changes we make to alter our present material state, deep down we know what eventually awaits us. The truth is, there isn’t a sports car fast enough, a partner young and attractive enough, or a body strong and defined enough to protect you from life’s setbacks and the travails of aging. In the long run, you cannot trade your current ‘model’ in for a better, sexier, or younger one. Facing your aging self, failures, and mortality is something everyone must eventually grapple with. You can’t outrun your shadow no matter how fast you run on the treadmill of life.
Still, many of us desperately flee from the inevitability of midlife and the traumas associated with aging and loss. But midlife isn’t just about physical decline or only reserved for those in their 40’s and 50’s. Anyone who suffers a crisis of identity can feel the burdens of midlife. John Mayer even used the term “quarter life crisis” in his song “Why Georgia.”
How we define ourselves in things like our relationships and professional identities will morph over time. Our physicality will also change like the seasons. Such profound change can spark a sense of crisis in many. Personally speaking (though I am literally facing midlife as I write this) the ‘midlife’ crisis is not a new concept for me. Whether it was traumatic physical setbacks like reconstructive ear and rotator cuff surgeries in my 20’s, a significant career transition in my 30’s or divorce in my 40’s, I’ve learned that the daunting prospect of massive life change is a part of any stage of life, not just midlife.
One of the paradoxes of getting older is that we seek to reverse or slow aging and uncertainty through avenues and material things that we feel we can directly control - our body, money, relationships or professional status. But at the end of the day, the notion of control in any of these arenas is a fallacy. Money can’t protect you from disease, injury or heartbreak. Even the best, most fulfilling job in the world at some point will run its course. Relationships evolve, change and eventually end. And, as the laws of physics and gravity dictate, the race against your aging body is not a winnable one. Try as we might, as Brené Brown suggests, “you’re going down.”
You ultimately have the choice to go down kicking and screaming or you can accept your next chapter with grace and surrender to the notion of rebirth.
As athletes know all too well, defining life by your physical capabilities is a young person’s game. I’ve often wondered what the aging star athlete sitting at the end of the bench thinks as the clock keeps ticking. What questions does she ask – ‘Who am I?’ ‘What’s next?’ ‘How do I start the next chapter?’ These are questions all of us must ask at some point. Each life crisis we face whether quarterlife, midlife or old age all bring forth opportunities for rejuvenation, renewal and reawakening.
In the Bible it’s clear that ‘rebirth’ is a necessary step in spiritual evolution. Yet starting anew isn’t confined by the physical constraints of aging. It isn’t physical strength or abundant material resources that are requirements for a fresh start, but the vitality of a youthful and humble disposition. And when it comes to spiritual rebirth it isn’t by planning, controlling, or seeking new answers that we grow, but by the willingness to ask new questions. Midlife isn’t a crisis we must endure, but an opportunity to evolve our state of mind.
At a recent crossroads in my life a few years ago, a friend suggested reading the book Falling Upward by Richard Rohr commenting that the questions I was asking were ‘second half’ questions. Rohr’s book asserts that there are essentially two ‘halves’ of life - The first half is characterized by worldly pillars of power, comfort and recognition. We spend this first half of life constructing and filling up our “containers.” That is, pursuing status and professional success, establishing defined roles (as friend, spouse, relative or parent) and compiling worldly possessions. Rohr describes such first half actions as “rising, achieving accomplishing, and performing.”
Conversely, the second half is about self-emptying and the willingness to let go of our earthly definitions. The second half is characterized by the actions of contemplation and surrender and by the willingness to wrestle with purpose-driven, existential queries. Though Jung first popularized the term “two halves,” instead of relating the notion to aging, Rohr likens the second half as having the courage to let go of ego. Meister Eckhart captured the essence of the second half eloquently, stating,“To be full of things is to be empty of God. To be empty of things is to be full of God.”
While the search for meaning and moving beyond our ego can be seen as a terrifying downward spiral for some, Rohr actually calls this process “falling upward.” But even if you don’t buy the spiritual notion of the ‘second half,’ anyone can buy into the concept of staying young at heart. While we will all likely encounter physical challenges, loss, fractured relationships and career setbacks, we needn’t suffer lasting mental anguish and an ‘elderly’ state of mind. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, “This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”
Not to completely dismiss the first half mind you. I’ve spent the better part of my life in pursuit of my professional identity, health and a fit body. Certainly, I enjoy the fruits of my labors and cherish my close relationships and my roles as a son, friend, brother, and husband. Filling up our ‘containers’ is natural and responsible. But jobs, possessions, relationships and even experiences don’t define the real essence of us - qualities do.
Facing midlife is about having the courage to let go of material desires and the resolution to replace that drive with a different type of tenacity. As Rohr suggests, the mark of rebirth is to be “grounded, not guarded” in giving our authentic gifts.
Falling or getting knocked down is a part of life and for many, an acute crisis in midlife. Getting back up with humility, an open heart and the desire for rebirth is our true task at any stage of life.