Apropos Generation X: That was the 1991 book written by Douglas Coupland, which managed the first and last time to convince me of belonging to a group of people that goes through somewhat similar experiences. Until … yes, until I caught up late last year with an old friend of mine, whom I hadn’t seen since law school. It’s this conversation and the consequent thoughts that I want to share in this annual review with you. It turns out to be rather an outlook than a review.
Werther told me that he trains for an Iron Man participation in 2017. Without long-term goals no progress, he said. I asked him why he was into triathlon and Iron Man in particular; considering his still quite young children and the amount of time, which one has to train for an Iron Man competition, it seems such an intensive hobby is in direct conflict with family life, I argued. He didn’t hesitate a second with his reply: Most man being his age, i.e. in their mid 40ies to mid 50ies, somehow struggle with life or go through a full blown midlife crisis. He observed that their response to the crisis could be roughly classified into three categories: find a lover, buy a Porsche, or get into sports.
Believe me, I was not prepared to engage in such a conversation, but those who know me a little bit won’t be surprised that the topic got me hooked. My life always felt like a permanent crisis until I only recently changed my attitude. A midlife crisis is usually experienced in the 40ies or 50ies when feelings of happiness and life satisfaction decrease and feelings of depression and discontentment increase. I am not surprised then that after a solid crisis track record over the last four decades there is no sign of a midlife crisis en route: my charts are pointing rather flatly, but consistently upwards. Turning 40 only a few months later and – most likely - reaching my biological half-life, it seemed though like a good opportunity to ask somebody a few years ahead what to expect. So what is a midlife crisis all about?
The notion of the midlife crisis began with followers of Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud in the 1st half of the 20th century, who thought that during middle age everyone’s thoughts were driven by the fear of impending death. Midlife crisis (MLC) is a term first coined in the 2nd half of the 20th century by Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques referring to a critical phase in a person's life during the forties to early sixties, based on periods of transition.
Wikipedia says that the condition is most common from the ages of 41 through 60 (a large study in the 1990s found that the average age at onset of a self-described midlife crisis was 45). Mid-life crises last about 3–10 years in men and 2–5 years in women (read: wow! That’s probably the longest lasting mental issue a person can experience). A mid-life crisis could be caused by aging itself, or aging in combination with changes, problems, or regrets over:
· work or career (or lack thereof)
· spousal relationships (or lack thereof)
· maturation of children (or lack of children)
· aging or death of parents
· physical changes associated with aging
Affected individuals exhibit some of these behaviors:
· abuse of drugs or alcohol
· acquisition of unusual or expensive items such as motorbikes, boats, clothing, sports cars, jewelry, gadgets, tattoos, piercings, etc.
· having remorse for one's wrongs.
· paying special attention to physical appearance such as covering baldness, wearing youthful designer clothes, etc.
· entering relationships with younger people (whether sexual, professional, parental, etc.
· placing over-importance (and possibly a psychologically damaging amount) on their children to excel in areas such as sports, arts, or academics
German-American psychologist Erik H. Erikson formulated eight stages of psychosocial development as major periods of transition; all can result in crisis. I favor this concept of almost permanent crisis, which is always linked with the positive outlook of personal growth. The seventh life stage of generativity versus stagnation between the ages of 35-64 also coincides with the idea of a mid-life crisis. Erikson believed that in this stage adults begin to understand the pressure of being committed to improving the lives of generations to come. In this stage a person realizes the inevitability of mortality and the virtue of this stage is the creating of a better world for future generations in order for the human race to grow. Stagnation is the lack of psychological movement or growth. Instead of helping the community a person is barely able to help their own family. Those who experience stagnation do not invest in the growth of themselves or others.
Werther’s personal explanation came as quite a realization to me in terms of parenting: Midlife crisis kicks in, he elaborated, when one’s children have grown up to the extent that parents realize they are not much longer needed; when the intensity of upbringing makes way to the child’s growing urge for time without parental guidance or support; when man realizes his own finiteness and morality by visualizing his offspring to grow into adulthood and oneself into retirement. This looming vacuum and probably some other much longer existing voids cause man to consider several options to fill the gap. After years of bearing the parenting yoke as well as experiencing the joys and rewards therefore; probably having failed to notice the disintegration of other relationships and one’s crescent compensation behaviors, there are obviously only three main choices to do so.
I am afraid that there is no “one suits all Q&A” thereto. We have to understand our psychological set up to such an extent as to be able to focus on whatever need we want to have satisfied. Once we have made a choice, we have to focus and finish. If we fail, we can start over again, and probably make a smarter choice. I think though that at a certain point in our lives, it can be justly said, that there should be a prevalence of altruistic over egocentric motives. And that was basically what crossed my mind the second Werther recounted the three responses to midlife crisis he had noticed: all of them are egocentric and lack purpose.
I happen to ponder lately quite some time over the purpose question, although not in a private but in a professional setting. Therefore one quote by Viktor E. Frankl comes straight to my mind: For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, as personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. If only pleasure is sought after, genuine and lasting happiness can’t ensue.
Raising children is a fulfilling and sometimes even healing occupation, which gives man a deep purpose. We experience parental happiness as a by-product of our surrender to our children and as our personal dedication to a cause greater than ourselves, i.e. our children’s growth and wellbeing. Some of us don’t ask to become a parent, some struggle for considerable time to be a parent, but most of us yield to the physiological and psychological force, which destroys parts of our individualized adult identity only to erect a new parent identity, i.e. something greater than our singular selves. We experience growth; simply by doing what we ought to do.
Our firstborn daughter turned seven last May and I noticed some subtle changes in her behavior. She is less physical; she asks for sleepovers at her friend’s homes. She mostly sleeps alone in the children’s bedroom, while her brother still insists to sleep either with grandma or us. I wasn’t caught in surprise by this change. I knew that children usually enter at age six a new developmental stage. But experiencing these changes made me think the first time as a parent that this part of my life is finite and – in regard our daughter - at least one third is already gone. At age twelve she might feel awkward to even hug her dad. At age 18 latest, she will hug somebody else.
I thought therefore that its wise to prepare in advance; be ready for the change; be ready to let go. To make up my mind about what would be fulfilling instead of these golden years with our children between both being housebroken and yet not in adolescence turmoil, turned therefore into a main theme during the last months. I am probably early with my preparations; but meeting Werther late into 2015 confirmed unexpectedly that I am not too early after all. My answer is neither bungee jumping nor a Porsche, but seeking an occupation with purpose for society at large.
If all psychological discontentment is rooted in stagnation, so it must be for midlife crisis. There are probably many more reasons why midlife crisis kicks in, but assuming that our children leaving us alone with ourselves and thus again inducing a change in our identity at a much later stage in our life is a main source of suffering, we are advised to embrace this period of transition. If we have experienced growth when becoming parents by surrendering to something larger than ourselves, it seems to be a wise approach to do the same once again by e.g. signing up to a non-profit initiative or adding purpose to our jobs.
If you are stuck in whatever crisis and can’t figure out how to add purpose to your life, I propose as a first stepping stone to read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (tough assignment). Not because he is a fellow Austrian. No. But because he survived WWII concentration camps and has more to say than Sigmund Freud. Or watch one of my favorite TED talks by Stefan Sagmeister (easy assignment). Not because he is a fellow Austrian. No. But because he combines aesthetical rigor and passion in his work with pragmatic and anti-mainstream insights. Sagmeister runs a successful design studio in New York, which he closes every seven years for twelve months. He recommends to cut off five years of retirement to distribute them evenly over our work life of approximatly 40 years. I agree that there is a benefit for the individual as well as for society at large. Consider this advice from a lifestyle & design guru and avoid MLC. If it can’t be avoided, then try to turn the crisis into a platform for growth like Erik Erikson suggested; and If you don’t face MLC, you actually belong to the majority. Middle-aged are happier and more satisfied with their daily life than younger adults are. They have found their way in the world, they are settled into their job, and their kids are older. On average, midlife is a happy time.
We might actually take a sabbatical in the foreseeable future, but for the time being we stay put in Shanghai; the dragon head, where Chinese power and progress epitomizes. We focus on our jobs in a dramatically changing society; we focus on our parenting responsibilities and thus life is quite full. What is left, is either reserved to physical exercise, which I pledged to see as part of my working hours starting with 2016, or to my blogs. After more than four years mycountryandmypeople.org, focused on China, and darkmatteressay.org, focused on nothing at all, will fade out to make time and space for a new format: mingong.org