“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” – Thoreau
Whenever someone over the age of 25 suggests a profound change, one of their friends will say, mockingly “you’re having a mid-life crisis!” It’s the only response adults know to offer.
We have no label for adults who continue to grow, who work to better understand themselves, and who periodically chooses to re-align their life with their dreams. Lifelong learner is close, but even this focuses on learning rather than changing. And most of us, as friends, don’t know how to respond when someone tries to step out of the box we’ve passively held them in, a box much like the one we hold ourselves in all the time.
To see a friend change is scary because it challenges the assumptions we have about ourselves. To watch a friend find a new career, partner or city forces us to question why we’re not doing the same, questions we spend most days trying not to ask. The instinctive response we have is parental: “stop being foolish, get over this phase, and get back in the (miserable) box.”
There is little more trivializing in life than calling someone’s pursuit of fulfillment a phase. It presumes the status quo is best, even when inspection reveals that status quo provides only illusions of quality. The ‘status quo’ is familiar and even when filled with mediocrity or misery we naturally, biologically, prefer it to the unknown, even if we suspect that unknown just might yield fulfillment. Perhaps someone who changes their mind on life choices by the hour deserves mockery from friends, but they also deserve respect for expressing the universal feeling that there might be a better way to go about living.
Making a tough choice is precisely when we need the most help from friends and family, but choice divides people. Many see us for who we are but only a fraction see us for who we can be. When I quit my career at 31 to try to become a writer, I heard “you’re having a mid-life crisis” over and over again and was hurt by it. I wasn’t in crisis. I’d calmly considered my life and my choices. I had a dream for my life and I wanted to put as much energy into it as I could, but I discovered there was no system to rely on like the systems that led me through school and career. I wanted a mid-life growth phase, to use the terms that were offered to me.
But few people bothered to inquire what I wanted from my life, how this choice might improve my odds, or what they could do to help. I sought support from books (which helped me plan how to quit), but most offered shallow promises. You can’t expect a map if your plan is to go off the map. My best comfort came from the honest uncertainty described in Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life? which described a candid landscape of all the possible outcomes of wanting to live a dream.
Most people I talked to presumed staying in the same career my entire life suited me, simply because that presumption allowed them to hide in their own unexamined life choices. “Why would you throw this away?” I heard, as if making a right turn in a car destroyed not only the car but the road too. It was a surprise to discover where support for my choices came from as it wasn’t always from the friends and family I’d have guessed. When you share your deepest dream it’s surprising who understands and who is mystified or even disappointed. Part of the adventure of a big change is resorting your allies, as you can’t predict who among those you know will be most connected with the person you’re becoming. And the biggest surprise of all is the new important friends you make along the way, happy consequences of a scary choice made with conviction.
Buying a Ferrari or having a desperate affair with the babysitter (or gardener) are cliches of trying to recapture youth, as they find their present devoid of meaning or joy. These acts are often done by people who have no idea what is really bothering them, and like scrambling in a closet for clothes when late for work, the cliches are the easiest and most impulsive things to try. They only understand later that the desire for the Ferrari or an affair were likely symptoms of a problem denied and not the problem or solution itself. If they’re lucky the resulting true crisis those decisions causes forces them to dig deeper into what’s missing from their lives and pursue change.
I imagine for myself a lifetime of changes initiated by me. I know I’m too curious, and life is too short, to follow the conventional footsteps that everyone is quick to defend despite how miserable they seem in the following. We use the phrase “life long learner” but it’s corny and shallow, suggesting people who quietly take courses or read books after college as if the essence of life were merely a hobby. We need a term for life long growers, people who continue to examine and explore their own potentials and passions, making new and bigger bets as they change throughout life. With or without a label I’ve learned more through my so called mid-life crisis about myself, my friends and the possibilities of life, than I could any other way and I plan to make similar changes throughout my hopefully long and fulfilling life.