Avoiding a Mid-Life Crisis

If you are growing old well, then you are likely to help a child grow up well.

40 is not old, but it’s certainly not young either.  It’s the start of mid-life, and it has a well-earned, dangerous reputation.  It’s when so many people have an inner crisis, even if life is sailing along smoothly on the outside.  At some point disappointment, boredom, or depression accompany the person who has a career, a family, a home, a community, and all the subsequent stress of being responsible for so much.  In addition, health problems of all kinds begin to flare up by 40, which remind us that we are decaying in far more ways than we are growing.

Many 40-somethings have established their career, have gotten married, have had a few kids, and have bought all the things they need and most of the things they want.  They have arrived at their life destination, and they wonder, “This is it?”

For others, they are still building the best  life they can, and they feel the crushing weight of pressure from what they have constructed.  There are too many things to do, too many people to care for, too many problems to solve – just too many responsibilities in every area of life.  They are caring for children, spouses, friends, employees, and even aging parents.  They get to a point where they simply cannot balance it all anymore; it’s all just too much.  In frustration they cry out, “There just isn’t enough me to go around!”

It’s a tough time of life, indeed, and for some it’s just too much, so they pull the ripcord of life.  They give up on something big, like their marriage, their kids, or their career.  Sometimes they chuck it all at once.  Or they just give up trying very hard at anything, settling into a comfortably complacent lifestyle.  They fall prey to the consumer-centered suburban lifestyle, and they go out to pasture.

So what’s a mid-lifer to do?  Well, after spending four days in Colorado with some of my favorite 40-ish guys, I’m ready to convey a few suggestions based on our conversations.  I’m sorry if any of this seems trite; I realize that all of these things are a lot easier said than done.  But hopefully, it will help in some way – for your sake, and for your kids.

  1. Focus. Identify your top four or five priorities in life and focus on them — to the detriment of all else.  Set your sights on just a few things that you are passionate about and that you have valued for a long time.  For me (at this point in my life) it’s family, faith, teaching, and writing.  If I can do those things well, then I am on the right track.  But that may mean that I am not going to keep up with all my friends very well.  It means that I am not going to be able to play golf, read a novel a month, or hone my guitar skills anytime soon.  I have to face facts: I can only do so much.  Trying to do it all is living in a fantasy world (see #4 below).  Learn to accept mediocrity in the less important areas of your life.
  2. Accept Imbalance. Oprah and others in the media are constantly preaching the need to balance your life.  This may be possible for people like Oprah who are wealthy, single, child-less, and have a staff of personal assistants, but I don’t know anyone who is forty-something / middle-class / married / parent / homeowner that can effectively balance all of his or her responsibilities.  The real world is too demanding and chaotic for most of us.  No day is in full balance, and truthfully, with too much balance, you’re probably not tackling life hard enough.  Those who “get after life” are rarely accused of being well-balanced. So cut yourself some slack.  You can’t have it all, do it all, or even keep yourself in balance.  Understand that things will get imbalanced a lot, and that’s okay.  Lose some sleep, and make it up next week.  Spend too much, and save more later.  Some people get hyper-focused on being so responsible and balanced that they don’t allow themselves to get imbalanced for a greater good.
  3. Exercise.  For many of us, we don’t have a convenient time during the day for working out because we are too busy with more important things related to family, career, and home.  But the pounds add up, the injuries increase, depression creeps in, and the stress mounts nonetheless.  So, we need to make time to exercise.  Our physical and mental health depend on it, in more ways than one.  Giving up on health and fitness is one of the quickest paths to a mid-life crisis.
  4. Get Real.  Check your thinking:  Are you kidding yourself in any way?  Are you acting like someone who wants to have someone else’s life?  Instead, strive to maintain a realistic perspective on your life.  Play the hand that has been dealt to you.  One thing that helps is to embrace the fact that many of the best things in life are temporary.  For example, some hobbies and dreams need to be put on the back-burner and some need to be buried altogether.  Perhaps you need to give up golf for a few years in order to make extra time for taking care of infants in the home.  Or maybe it’s time to quit playing basketball in order to preserve your joints (and dignity).  After all, some games are for young men, and you are not a young man anymore.  That’s just reality.  But instead of weeping about the loss, take up a mid-life activity that fits your new life, like biking, hiking, hunting, or tennis.  Plus, you’ll find that learning new skills will make you feel like you are growing, not dying.
  5. Friends. No man should be an island of frustration.  Find someone to talk to with all honesty.  If not a group of friends, then a counselor or pastor. But ideally, you’ll have a few honest friends who share the same values as you, and you can get on each other’s case as needed.  Give each other permission to hold each other accountable to the values you share.  This will require trust.  Yes, practice trusting other people.  There is freedom and peace that comes from having people in your life whom you trust and who trust you.
  6. Hug your life.  Quit looking out the windows at the things you once had or wish you could have.   Instead, embrace what you already have.  Look again at your sweet wife and remind yourself of all the things you love about her.  Look anew at your child, and think of the heartbreaking loss you would feel if you lost her.  Take an objective look at your job and your home and remember why you chose them and how it would feel to lose them.  Count those blessings when your eyes wander out the windows.  Thank God for what you have.
  7. Pray.   Ask God to help you trust in His ability to take care of you and all those responsibilities.  Ask for help in being more content and thankful.  Pray for wisdom and peace about your obligations and duties.  Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, writes, “Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Any other suggestions?  Leave comment for us, please.

2 responses to “Avoiding a Mid-Life Crisis”

  1. That is all fabulous! This is something I could put by my bedside next to my Bible to serve as a little life reminder. My husband and I are both 42 and have each taken on a new hobby which has been fabulous. We gave up some things while the kids were young and found new things now that they are older. He is biking and I’m playing tennis. Just b/c you are getting older doesn’t mean you can’t start something new. Life goes in stages and enjoying each one for what it is at that moment is a blessing.

  2. I always hear people say, life is too short to not enjoy it. I think it’s more accurate to say, life is too LONG to continue doing things you don’t enjoy. Too many people settle in a life that is not fulfilling. Turning 40 is a great way to perform a checkpoint and make sure you’re going in a direction that is meaningful to me.
    I just turned 40 and I think this is a great time!

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