My friend Bill has a confession. He’s at the upper end of middle age. Yes, his graying hair is rapidly thinning. Some days he tells me that he looks “distinguished,” but I know the truth. He’s growing older.
I can tell instantly when someone is turning 40. They start an exercise program, begin a serious diet and buy a new wardrobe. Self-improvement books fill their bookshelves. Like teenagers, they stare at themselves in the mirror. Men read the obituaries. Women examine each other’s bodies with a microscopic eye, noticing every lump and bump. Woe is the middle-aged person who actually looks their age!
What is this all about? Modern American culture glorifies youth. Beautiful young adults decorate magazines and television screens. On TV, middle-aged adults all look youthful. There used to be a popular series called “Thirty Something.” Can you imagine “Fifty Something” on prime time?
In my 20s, the future was like an uncharted, limitless ocean, ripe for exploration. Turning 30, this vast ocean became a sea — still large, but smaller. I realized I could never be a professional athlete (duh!). Becoming 40 was a moment of triumph — I felt successful. At the gates of middle age, this still great but charted sea became smaller, more defined. I could see its shores, although still in the distance. My first friend died. I was scared.
Turning 50 was a serious moment. I could imagine the shores of this sea called my life. At 60, I realized that if I wanted to do something, now was the time. Now, I am at the doorstep of 70, and who knows how much time I will have?
The “D word” in our culture evokes fear and denial. As sex was hidden in Victorian times, death is the disgrace of modern life. In our society, death is not viewed as part of life. Rather, it’s seen as the enemy. Growing older is inevitable but despised and is considered the beginning of the end. Our value decreases with each year.
This confrontation with mortality brings about a period of intense upheaval and emotional instability. Feelings long buried under piles of responsibilities abruptly appear. Midlife crises are nothing to sneer at. Marriages come to an end. Maturing careers are tossed away. Children are abandoned. Depression and anxiety surface.
Unresolved issues from adolescence, like acne, poke their ugly heads up from the ancient past. Adults, who were good campers as teenagers, become rebellious. Mature men and women imagine flings with younger partners. Middle-aged adults ask themselves, “Who am I? What do I want? What is important to me? How do I want to live?” Middle age triggers a new identity crisis.
A period of revaluation in midlife is healthy. Growing responsibilities of family and work tend to obscure deeply felt needs. These needs may be unrecognized and unfulfilled. Previous generations of adults worried only about security. But in this generation, men and women want meaning, purpose and experiences. Having choices that our parents never had can bring on intense anxiety and fear. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I miss out on an experience I always wanted to have? Adults in midlife are keenly aware that choosing one path now may preclude taking another road later.
Here is some advice to consider:
Take stock. Look at your life with a friendly but discerning eye. Reexamine your childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Identify major themes, conflicts and needs that shaped your choices at different times in your life.
Evaluate your priorities. Are you doing what you want to be doing? Have you always wanted to scuba dive? To take up stargazing? To learn to play the piano? There’s no time like the present.
Examine your relationships. Are they meeting your needs? Are you giving all you can? This may be the time to invigorate your relationships and let go of ones that are stale.
Midlife presents great opportunities to reshape your priorities for the coming decades. It’s also a time to accept and honor yourself and the people you love.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.