Monday, July 16, 2007


Part 2

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 self.

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.

1 comment:

Men Venida-Abot said...


Thank you for sharing this to everybody. It may hurt but it's the truth.


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