[nasional_list] [ppiindia] How to Have a Mid-Life Crisis

  • From: "Ambon" <sea@xxxxxxxxxx>
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  • Date: Thu, 7 Sep 2006 14:08:31 +0200

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How to Have a Mid-Life Crisis
Sometimes a man has to lose his bearings to find his way.
By Hugh O'Neill

Ever since Erik Erikson coined the term "midlife crisis" more than 30 years 
ago, male melancholy around halftime has been poked and prodded six ways to 
whaddya say. Theories abound. At the bio-extreme is the idea that the midway 
heebie-jeebies are hardwired, a hormonal analogue to female menopause. The 
skeptics believe that the 40s funk is just a self-fulfilling prophecy for 
self-indulgent guys.

The idea of a midlife crisis offends a man's up-and-at-'em American aesthetic. 
And given all the therapeutic silliness that gets sold as midlife fixes, it's 
tempting to dis the male willies as psycho-bunk. Bad idea. Male midlife crisis 
is a time-honored trough, described by Dante and Shakespeare and endured by 
citizens no less manly than Ulysses S. Grant, who only saved the republic 
before his swoon, and the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who got a mite moody after his 
meander on the moon.

"There are multiple paths through midlife crisis," says Jacquelyn James, Ph.D., 
associate director of the Murray Research Center at Radcliffe College. Each 
man's journey is unique, shaped by his history and his hopes, his 
relationships, his blood pressure, and the angle of his dangle. To be sure, the 
intensity of the midlife passage varies greatly.

For some men, it's a dark ordeal that includes depression and is best navigated 
with a doctor's help. For most, it's a less perilous, but still demanding, 
midcourse correction. But whether the midlife transit is traumatic or just 
tricky, self-medication with bourbon is a bad plan, and nobody is served by 
pretending we're too tough to have troubles.

Our goal is to come through middle life as better men. Sure, we'll be a tick 
less quick off the dribble, and yes, we'll need to rely on guile once in a 
while. But we'll also be wiser, calmer, stronger of spirit, and even more 
attractive to women of all ages. There are no perfect routes to your best older 
self. But we asked experts and some men we admire for guiding thoughts to ease 
the transit.

What The Hell Is A Midlife Crisis?

Justice Stewart's wisdom about pornography applies to midlife, too: tough to 
define, but you know it when you're in it. Men in the muddle often use words 
such as "aimless," "confused," "lost." Previously surefooted guys come to 
question things in which they once believed -- marriage, work, friendships. 
Some men report losing their vitality, their joy in things they used to savor. 
In the book Flyfishing through the Midlife Crisis, the New York Times executive 
editor Howell Raines describes this feeling as "disappointment and restlessness 
that tiptoe in on little cat feet."

Here's a symptom sampler: insomnia, fatigue, despair, morbidity, inability to 
concentrate, ruefulness about roads not taken, dread that life holds no more 
surprises, regrets, sharp longing for something (a gunmetal Porsche, a 
cigarette boat) or someone (the FedEx woman, Gina, whose smile is a promise of 
overnight delivery). Men in crisis often obsess about big questions, as in, 
"Does my life matter?"

"Many men start to think in terms of how little time they have left," says 
James. In severe cases, men fantasize about just lighting out, shucking off 
their old lives and starting over in the South Pacific or the Sawtooth Range. 
At 36, the world's our oyster, but by 44, we're trapped inside the oyster, 
gasping for air.

The midlife stew often starts with some garden-variety boredom. If you've been 
hoeing the same row for 20 years, only an idiot wouldn't wonder if there aren't 
some more interesting rows somewhere else. On top of tedium, we often get our 
first bolt of serious bad news: the death of a parent, trouble in a marriage, a 
career setback, the transformation of the 8-year-old who thought you were God 
into the adolescent who thinks you're the devil. Crushing chest pain and the 
word "biopsy" can set a fellow to thinking about what he's done with this life.

Often, come our 40s, some undeniable facts start eroding the dubious pillars on 
which we've built our notion of a man.

Beloved male Myth #1: Real men are strong and studly.

New Midlife Fact: We're sorta strong and sorta studly.

Make no mistake, guys in their 40s can still take the ball to the hole. (Note: 
Midlife passage may even be easier if you're fit.) But still, the machine is 
showing some mileage. Your time for the 100 meters is now closer to 20 seconds 
than to 10. Old Faithful is a tad less rigid and less quick to reenlist. Some 
gray hair and wrinkles are whispers of mortality, signs that we've started down 
the mountain's far side.

Beloved Male Myth #2: Real men are successful.

New Midlife Fact: Some men are more successful than others.

"At midlife, many men come face-to-face with the aspiration-achievement gap," 
says Orville G. Brim, Ph.D., director of the MacArthur Foundation Research 
Network on Successful Midlife Development, in Vero Beach, Florida. It slowly 
dawns on us that we'll never solemnly swear to preserve, protect, and defend 
the Constitution, write that rock-opera sequel to Tommy, or maybe be a father. 
Our big boyhood dreams have been precious, and it's easy to feel like a failure 
once it's clear they're dead. But even if you've realized your ambitions, 
another myth is often tattered at midlife.

Beloved Male Myth #3: Professional success will make you happy.

New Midlife Fact: Don't bet on it.

Even lots of alpha guys who've won the work game start to see it as one very 
stupid game. They've reached the Promised Land, but the milk tastes funny and 
there ain't no honey. "Suddenly, it's as though the rules you've played by have 
been declared invalid," says Kathleen Pajer, M.D., of the University of 
Pittsburgh department of psychiatry. "It sets a crisis in motion because your 
long-held beliefs are clashing with the reality of your feelings."

This isn't easy. "Any man who attempts a radical critique of his life at 40 
will be up against parts of himself that have a strong investment in the 
present structure," says Daniel J. Levinson, author of The Seasons of a Man's 
Life. If you're this close to finally making partner and shaking the money 
tree, it takes courage to admit that you hate the law, that it's draining the 
life from you. Still, it's got to be done. We have to refuel somehow, to 
reimagine our lives for the second half.

The secret is to become a self-seeker. Though the psycho-brains differ on 
details, there's general agreement that we have to move toward authenticity, 
toward an expression of our uniqueness. "We must attempt to sculpt our 
identity," says Dr. Pajer, "and find our unique place in the world." Carl Jung, 
the Swiss sultan of psyche, called the process individuation, or the coming to 

Here's the quickie version of Jung's model. In youth, we assemble a persona, a 
public face that helps us get along, cope with junior high, trick women into 
bed and the boss into giving raises. Behind this mask, we suppress all our 
neuroses, dreads, and the stuff that's too dark, artistic, or just plain odd 
for polite company.

As long as things go well, this works. But once the persona starts screwing up 
(e.g., lets us get fired or divorced), all those stifled secrets, once willing 
to shut up, start shouting up from the basement. To move from young man to Mr. 
Maturity, we've got to (1) hear those till-now smothered voices, and (2) do at 
least some of what they tell us to. The trick, by Jung, is to divest the self 
of the false wrappings of the persona. Time to set the self free.

Warning! Do not start celebrating your eccentricities. Footwear in public 
remains a requirement. And although yipping like a dachshund may help you vent, 
it often leads to exit interviews. Setting free the self just means starting to 
flex some of the muscles that are uniquely ours, kicking at least a few of the 
conformities that funnel us toward sameness and so subdue our spirits.

Here are some new ambitions we should strive toward.

1. Give Lancelot Love Handles 
Some psychologists advise moving beyond what they call heroic thinking. By 
that, they mean the phallic, ride-to-the-rescue, assert-your-will inclination 
of young manhood. There's probably wisdom in this thought. But why give up that 
beloved word, "heroic." Better to tweak the ideal a touch, cast Lancelot as 
older and wiser, less jouster than judge. Granted, it's no snap to see middle 
age as swashbuckling. The cliché of the diminished middle-aged man -- 
ineffectual, riddled with doubt -- is deep-rooted. But it's also ridiculous. 
Try swapping the merely muscular, boyish traits of youth for this anthology of 
autumnal virtues: prudence, patience, experience, wisdom, kindness, temperance, 
judiciousness, tenacity, perspective, coolness, and style. You could build a 
big shot from these beatitudes.

2. Throw the Boy Overboard
Hey, dingdong, the boy is dead. And so are his dreams. It's important to admit 
they're gone, sit shivah for a while, and then move on. Yes, grieving is 
required. But if we cling to the persona of youth (in Jung's phrase, "prop up 
the corpse"), we'll find ourselves trapped in regret and nostalgia for the 
past. Wrap the lad in an oilskin, slip him over the gunnels, salute a helluva 
fella, and chart a new course.

3. Write a New Mission Statement
We've got to find a new motivating mythology. "As he attempts to reappraise his 
life, a man discovers how much it has been based on illusions," says Levinson, 
"and he is faced with the task of de-illusionment." Levinson is careful not to 
use the word "disillusionment," with its implication of cynicism and despair. 
De-illusionment is not surrender, but rather a modification of our long-held 
dreams. "The challenge for the midlife man," adds Brim, "is to adapt to the 
closing down of possibilities, to the new realities of his life. It's perfectly 
okay to lower your level of aspiration, to give up an early goal and substitute 
something else."

Okay, maybe the Oval Office is a reach, but school board may still be on the 
radar screen. Adapt. Modify. Don't panic. Invent new goals. Remember that '60s 
slogan: "Think globally, act locally." Aspire to achievements in your backyard, 
small ambitions that are within your arms' reach.

Bad Idea #1: Plastic Surgery. No hair weave. No lobe lifting, eye nipping, 
wrinkle smoothing. Consider this list of names: Churchill, Tutu, Lombardi, 
Einstein, Schwarzkopf, Pope John Paul II. Not a liposucker among them.

Cautionary Thought: Try small changes before you blow up your life. It could be 
that to find happiness, you'll have to move to Montana, become polygamous, and 
start tagging wolves. But more likely, nothing so drastic will be required. 
After all, if your house needs a coat of paint, you don't tear it down and 
start from scratch. So your first self-seeking step shouldn't be to quit your 
job and blow your nest egg on berets, smocks, and easels.

Take baby self-steps first. Spend a Saturday working on the seascape that's 
been calling you for years. See where it leads. Sometimes little fixes can mean 
a lot. It's important to resist the inclination to just bug out, says Brim. "It 
can be a useful illusion, a daydream to carry one through, but it doesn't solve 
the problem."

4. Dance with Darth Vader, Turn Into a Soul Man
The move to selfhood requires a genuflection in the direction of our dark 
sides, all of our most severe secrets. Enough of this prissy Pollyanna pose. 
You've got to cop to the hurtful stuff, both the pain you've endured and the 
pain you've caused.

Maybe your old man didn't give a damn about you, diminished you daily with that 
deadly glance. Maybe you've done the same to your boy. Maybe you wasted your 
youth in a stupid job or married the wrong girl or betrayed your brother. Maybe 
you're not real bright or brave or blessed. Whatever your confession, make it. 
Swallow what's bitter in the cup, and move ahead bearing all the burdens that 
are yours.

Our wounds are our uniqueness. Remember Tolstoy's wisdom that "all happy 
families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own 
way." The psychotherapist Thomas Moore argues in his book Care of the Soul, 
"Soul power may emerge from failure, depression, and loss." To deny our dark 
feelings is to cut ourselves off from what he calls "the gifts of depression." 
He's not recommending the pall of diagnosable depression but simply saying that 
a Rotarian, sunny-side-up persona is false and traps us in a limiting innocence.

"The sadness of growing old is part of becoming an individual," he writes. 
"Melancholy thoughts carve out an interior space where wisdom can take up 

Gail Sheehy puts it this way in her best-selling book New Passages: "The spirit 
finds an opening in the brokenness."

5. Express Yourself, Anger and All
Nobody is suggesting that every hostile thought should get fired across the 
port bow. We've got to live together. But part of becoming a fully grown man is 
saying what's on your mind, respectfully, without rancor, straight up, no ice. 
It may not be a good idea to be completely honest with your boss; the phrase 
"odious autocrat" can be a bad career move. Ditto "spineless sea slug" and 
"obese cuckold." But when the mortgage payment isn't at risk, it might help to 
be ever-so-slightly less eager to please. Speak your piece. Forgo an excess of 
politeness. Conflict is rarely catastrophic; it's just the sound of life 

6. Become a Girlie Man
Listen for a second. No need to develop an obsession with shoes, but take a 
second look at some virtues normally associated with our mothers, sisters, and 
wives. It's a psycho-truism that, as we age, women and men get more like each 
other. They get more assertive; we get more interested in relationships. Pardon 
the expression, but go with that flow.

Start to move from conquesting to caretaking. Consider Thoreau's wimpy wisdom: 
"The weapons with which we have gained our most important victories, which 
should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and 
the lance, but the bushwhack, the turf cutter, the spade, and the bog hoe." 
Slowly segue from hunter to farmer. Practice husbandry.

Encouraging Thought: Sadat and Begin got to Camp David. In youth, Anwar and 
Menachem were fighters, sworn ancestral enemies, fierce on behalf of their 
cause. And yet when their arcs ended on the White House lawn with a handshake 
and an olive branch replacing an Uzi, nobody questioned their cojones. Aspire 
to make the transition from warrior to wise man.

Psychotherapist Erikson suggests that middle-aged men aspire to "generativity," 
meaning they should find ways to be of use to the next generation. But it can 
work in the other direction, too. Start to see your mother and father as the 
old and vulnerable people they are. Step up, pally boy. You're a grown man.

7. Leave a Legacy
At middle age, we start to think about our legacy. A fellow wants to leave a 
footprint or two on the beach. A good-natured child is a legacy. So is a 
multinational company or the O'Neill Center for Public Policy and Baseball 
Studies at Yale. But legacies don't have to be carved in granite or traded on 
the big board. At midlife, it helps to start working on what you'll leave 

Get started on that novel. You're no wordsmith? Okay, build that deck off the 
kitchen. You're all thumbs? Okay, fire the guy who blows the leaves around and 
do it yourself. Apply your effort, your muscles, your sweat, not just your 
money, to your home's care. Anything you do to resist the Second Law of 
Thermodynamics -- the one that says things tend to fall apart -- is an 
assertion of your presence on this earth and so, self-celebrating. A 
well-tended house is a legacy.

So is a story your children pass on to your grandchildren. The key, wrote 
Ernest Becker in the landmark book The Denial of Death, "is to fashion 
something -- an object or ourselves -- and drop it into the confusion, make an 
offering, so to speak, to the life force." 

8. Throw Out the Map
Men take flak for being goal-oriented. You've probably heard that we should 
enjoy the journey (foreplay) more and stop focusing so much on the destination 
(hallelujah). Best defense: If Lewis and Clark hadn't had a goal, the French 
would own Vegas. Still, the charge is not without merit. We do tend to barrel 
by some scenic overlooks that would be worth a glimpse.

Don't be so straight ahead, so sure you know where you're going. Be like 
free-market capitalists, pro-growth but not determined to grow in any 
particular direction. Sheehy cites the Chinese notion that a mature person is a 
ball, rolling with life's ups and downs but always centered unto itself. 
Levinson argues that it's continuing evolution, and "not the attainment of any 
particular final state," that is "the essence of human development." Jung used 
the image of the tree, growing around rocks and purposelessly up toward the 
sun, to describe this open-minded growth.

9. Stop Making Sense
We're a cause-effect bunch of guys. We like things that make sense. If the 
Lakers have 97 and the Bucks 96, Lakers win. Rules are clear. But the fact is, 
if we're ever going to fully appreciate this trip called being human, we're 
going to have to learn to swim around in more ambiguous waters. If we 
constantly cut to the chase, are always bottom-lining everything, we're going 
to miss some intriguing steps along the way.

Don't get flummoxed by illogical things or expect people to make sense. Love 
and hate make no sense. Why should the stuff in between? The young man is 
undone by uncertainty; the middle-aged sage is not. He savors the oddness of 
other humans. Don't be so sure that the Western, Aristotelian, mechanistic 
rendition of reality tells you all you need to know.

10. Seek Sensuality
Nope, sorry, this is not permission to act on those frisky feelings about Fiona 
from finance; just a reminder that the routinization of life saps our energy. 
Jolt yourself awake with jaunts off the tracks. Seek new textures, tastes. Try 
new foods (enough with the chili -- eat a kiwi, or something from Africa). Try 
reading a book, maybe two, maybe even one written by a woman. Or better yet, by 
a Latina woman. Get respectful of legends in areas other than sports, war, and 
money. You're bored because you haven't learned anything new since the 
Ayatollah put the kibosh on Carter.

Take up a new sport. (If it's whitewater kayaking, try a sit-on-top first, and 
get a good helmet.) Any new skill or competence -- cooking, gardening, 
carpentry, car care, golf, guitar, or origami -- makes the spirit more 
receptive. Get outside. Fluorescent light is stealing your spunk. Walk in the 
woods or even down your street at dusk or dawn. There is consolation in nature, 
inspiration in oblique angles of light.

Bad Idea #2: Don't throw money at midlife. The Ferrari won't help. Nor will 
that titanium driver with the huge sweet spot. There's no talismanic cure. "We 
deny our own sense of failure," says Levinson, "by using narcissistic pleasures 
as a device for reassurance." Put away the credit card; it'll just add 
double-digit interest rates to the other stressors. The only answer, wrote 
Jung, is to turn directly toward the approaching darkness and "find out what it 
wants from you." 

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