Midlife Crisis – or Opportunity?
When life changes radically in the 40s and 50s, is it a crisis or opportunity? The Spiritual Curmudgeon says: “When choosing the lesser of two evils, I always pick the one I’ve never tried before.” Or was that Mae West in a midlife moment?
The other day I remarked to a fellow fortyish friend that, since so many of my acquaintances of a certain age are making huge changes for the better in their lives, it seemed to me the term “midlife crisis” was a misnomer. She reminded me that in Mandarin Chinese, the words for crisis (weiji, pronounced “way-gee”) and opportunity (jihui, pronounced “gee-hway”) are almost mirror images of each other.
That really resonated with me. Crisis; opportunity. These words are mirror images in any language, in meaning if not in pronunciation. Each is nothing more than a reaction to a new situation, or a falling away of the familiar.
We don’t like to see the familiar fall away. We become attached to what we think we need, what we think gives us security: our jobs, our homes, our identities, the people in our lives. But oftentimes, and particularly at midlife, what’s familiar may not be what’s best for us. And once we realize this, we have a choice as to how we react to change.
Put simply: if you find yourself on an airplane that’s about to crash, you have a choice. You can stay on the plane, and wish it weren’t going to crash, and lament your bad luck, and fight with reality. Or, you can grab a parachute and jump. One choice creates a crisis; the other creates an opportunity.
Of course, a million things could go wrong if you jump, such as the parachute fails to open; or you land in a tree and get tangled in and strangled by the parachute’s filaments. You might have a fear-induced heart-attack mid-air. You could break all of your limbs upon landing and be in terrible pain. Or, you might make it back to Earth in one piece, and immediately get hit by a truck.
But you could also survive one way or another, and get a brand-new lease on life…which, if you stayed on the plane with the failed engine, feeling as if you were doomed, you likely would never experience. And, if worse came to very worst, you still would have come as close as any human being ever gets to knowing what it feels like to fly. Weiji or jihui?
As we get older, we may “lose” a lot of things: our parents, our youthful physiques, our marketability in our chosen professions in today’s youth-oriented culture. We may suddenly lose interest in our work, in our spouses, in the activities that used to mean a lot to us. Example: your wife of 20 years announces that she no longer loves you and she’s leaving. But she is the love of your life, you bemoan. You’ll never meet another to take her place. That’s true; no one can take the place of anyone else. But can you really know that this woman is the love of your life? Maybe you are being spared from future unhappiness with her. Maybe you have not yet met the love of your life. Maybe the love of your life will arrive once you let go of this concept. And maybe you are the love of your life!
Another example: after many years of success in your profession, your work dries up. You call everyone you know, you knock yourself out sending around your resume and knocking on doors, answering every want ad, and it just doesn’t happen…not so much as an interview. If you get a phone call here and there from people who seem to need you, they later change their minds. Crisis or opportunity?
I’m speaking from experience here; this is happening to me right now. To be honest, I can’t say as the apparent end of my career always feels like an opportunity. Not having an income can turn into a crisis once the well runs dry. On the other hand, I have so often felt burnt out by my work, disrespected by my clients, wondering about what might have been had I chosen another career path. I have often thought I’d like to do something else. I never had enough time or energy to write, for example. Now I do. Opportunity. And with this freedom from my former propensity to define myself by what I do for a living, who knows what further opportunities will arise? I welcome them; I look forward to them. And I know I should not be working at my former profession now. How do I know that? Because I’m not.
When our habitual identities, supports, crutches, and mirrors are removed, we may feel we are left with nothing. Others of us may feel we are left with ourselves. We may come to see that, in truth, we never wanted anything else. In losing Other, we gain Self. And the Self, coming into its own, is free at last to be itself, perfectly.
You may come to see that in midlife you have everything you want; it’s just not what you always thought you wanted. An impending crash of any kind is only a crisis if you do one of two things: fail to act, or fret too much over the action you take.
Crisis or Opportunity. Which definition of a mid-life shakeup feels more comfortable, less stressful, to you? Why should we drag ourselves down with the idea of change as crisis when we can instead view it as an inviting new vista through a wide-open window?