A few half-baked thoughts on mid-life crisis

I’d love to write an article on the subject of middle age and its difficulties. But, as someone who is starting to feel some of the pressures of this phase, I’m afraid I have for now only a few half-baked thoughts.

But let’s start. (I’m thinking of the challenges that can accompany us in our thirties and forties.)

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What are the marks of this phase? Some weariness; a sense of burden brought by the responsibilities we accumulate; cynicism as we come to understand something of the ways of the world; wounds caused by ill-intentioned people and by our own stupidity; tension between the adult we want to become and the still-present adolescent impulses we find in ourselves; diminished impetus, at least when compared to the youthful zest of one’s twenties. The opening of Dante’s The Divine Comedy illustrates the sense of lostness that can accompany this slog in the journey of life:

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost…. I cannot rightly say how I entered it. I was so full of sleep, at that point where I abandoned the true way.

Russell Moore recorded an excellent podcast about the theme. Among several good observations, he suspects that leader’s moral failings can act like “escape valves” one uses to feel young and energetic again.

This week I’ve found this sentence in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, where the Roman Emperor reflects at one point:

As in the bad days of Antioch, before my adoption by Trajan, I thought with a pang that nothing is slower than the true birth of a man: I had myself passed my thirtieth year before the Pannonian campaign had opened my eyes to the responsibilities of power…”[1]

In a similar way, in the Three Uses of the Knife, playwright David Mamet makes an analogy between mid-life and the second act of stories, the hardest part to write.

In his analysis of world myth, Joseph Campbell calls this period in the belly of the beast–the time which is not the beginning and not the end, the time in which artist and protagonist doubt themselves and wish the journey had never begun. This is the stating ground for the assault on the final goal–the time in which the beginning goal is transmuted into a higher goal, in which the true nature of the struggle asserts itself… The hero must revamp her thinking about the world. And this revamping can lead to great art.[2]

In movies, for example, the second act is often the place of the false project, where the protagonist pursues a wrong goal before realizing what his true need is; of the false victory, where triumph in the false project is actually a distancing from others and from his true self; and of defeat before the final struggle of the third and final act. It is where the protagonist often “gets lost” or is increasingly defeated, before coming to his senses and triumphing in the third act.

Mamet quotes Leon Tolstoy about the potential of rebirth and renewal of one’s thirties:

Tolstoy wrote that if you don’t undergo this reexamination, this revision, in your thirties, the rest of your life will be intellectually sterile…. [T]his state is the beginning of great opportunity. Tolstoy suggested that it was the opportunity to change myth by which one lives; to rethink everything; to ask, ‘What is the nature of the world?’”[3]

To change myth, to change the narrative by which one lives. What is the world? Why am I pursuing what I’m pursuing? Is it the thing I should be really pursuing? Are my successes the right successes and my defeats instructive defeats?

That’s a salutary reexamination, no matter where in the journey of life we find ourselves in.

René Breuel

[1] Margherite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian, pag. 216.

[2] David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife, pag. 38.

[3] Ibid., pags. 38-39.

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