This past weekend I went to a 60th birthday party of a dear friend. He’s a sensitive, sweet soul who paints the most magnificent pictures for a hobby and adores his wife. The party was rather small and intimate, which to me, was touching. (By the time you’re sixty, I think, you know who your real friends are.) Here we were, in our Saturday night finest, sitting around the intimate candlelit table in the elegant special-occasion restaurant, passing the candle around so we could read our menus. (Reminder to self: pack mini flashlight next time.)
The wine was poured. Toasts were made. And one of the guests (a bit too loudly, in my opinion) had his turn. “Now that you’re sixty, you’re going to go out and find a young girlfriend or buy a red sports car…right? You know, those midlife crisis things people do?”
I tried to conceal my irritation by hiding behind my menu. I peeked out to see birthday boy silently cringing behind a forced smile. When I was tempted to say something but knew I shouldn’t get started, instead I kicked my husband under the table (sorry, honey, I hope I didn’t leave a scar).
I have my own strong feelings about this phrase; the pairing of the two words MIDLIFE and CRISIS. Why do they have to go together? There’s even a definition for it in Webster’s Dictionary: "A period of emotional turmoil in middle age characterized esp. by a strong desire for change." Do you mean to tell me that 78 million of us (that’s how many people were born during the post-World War II population boom) are making changes in our lives because of a crisis? And the only reason we’re changing is because of some emotional turmoil?
I have nothing against change. I like it; it keeps things interesting. You need change to grow and learn. Sure, if and when change happens it is usually happens around midlife, when we’re finally savvy enough to reflect upon the life we’ve led and the experiences we’ve had and can put all that hard-earned wisdom to use. If we’re brave enough, we change. If we’ve learned from our past mistakes, we change. If we can make sense of actions and their consequences, we make some adjustments.
And I won’t argue that many times changes are made following a crisis. After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I changed a lot of things in my life. I quit my job, stayed home with my young toddlers, became a better mom and became an overall happier – and more grateful – person. Illness is a crisis. And last night, I was watching the reenactment of the plane crash on the Hudson and listened to a woman talk about how that experience changed her. She quit her demanding job to volunteer instead with the Red Cross and start a family. A plane crash, near-death experience? Definitely a crisis.
But midlife – a crisis?? Now, really.
I know lots of people who have made changes around this time. They realize they chose the wrong partner, live in the wrong place, are doing a job they hate, need to dump that negative friend. Change takes guts. It’s scary and liberating all at once.
Feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy have finally dissipated enough to give us a forward momentum; experience has paved the way for us to read our inner compass and head in the right direction (or even a different one). Fear takes a back seat to desire, perhaps fueled by knowing that it’s now or never. The passing of time has a way of making things a bit more urgent for so many of us.
So, back to my friend, the birthday boy. He quietly ignored the comment. I’d like to think that in his younger life, he wouldn’t have; instead he might have argued, disagreed, called the guy a jerk, made him realize that what he was saying was just dumb. This might have caused an argument, making the rest of the guests squirm in their seats; making the food less tasty and the celebration more grim.
I’d also like to think that he ignored the comment because now his age has taught him something.
Live and learn. These two words…I like. (Oh, and happy and birthday, too.)
What kinds of changes has midlife brought about in you? Have you made any changes – or might be contemplating any major changes – that have never occurred to you before now? Join the conversation here.