When I was a boy, I knew about men who left their wives and families, gave up their responsibilities, and began new lives, usually with much younger women (or a string of them). Somewhere in the mix there was usually a sportscar or a motorcycle and the adoption of hobbies, habits, and styles appropriate to the much younger. To be fair, it wasn't always men; my godmother did much the same thing in her middle years.
Whatever the specifics, the judgment was always the same. I was taught that this was the sloughing off of a person’s commitments and, not only wrong, but beyond understanding. To the young legalist, surrounded by his Stoic elders, this judgment felt exactly right.
As I got older, I saw the same thing happen to people I knew, people I worked with, people I socialized with. Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, partners, long-term companions would be abandoned for a new life and—usually—a new younger, fresher, fitter, hotter, partner. Where once there had been a couple, now there was one irresponsible and slightly ridiculous person with a new life and one needlessly suffering and trying to pick up the shards of a once-shared life.
I may have gotten older and more experienced—not wiser—in the ways of the world, but the judgment and lack of understanding remained. How could anyone do this? What is this beast, the mid-life crisis. Like so much of human life and interaction, it was something I couldn't quite grasp.
But, as I drift into—and through—my forties, the phenomenon begins to look differently to me. It becomes clearer. What I used to see merely as the shedding of an old life with all of its commitments and responsibilities (i.e., those things that define an adult life, it still seems), I now see as more truly a crisis, even if the nature of the crisis—it’s existential—isn’t always obvious to the person whose crisis it is.
It’s hard to approach the middle of life without beginning to question whether any of the first half of that life has meant anything. You don’t have to be Camus to ask yourself whether your life is simply a Sisyphean task leading to nothing but being forgotten a few years after your ever-closer death.
Until middle age so much of life is consumed with preparation, with education, with finding a career and making something of it, with finding a partner or spouse and making a life, with having and beginning to raise children, with making a home. And then, when all the preparation is done, you can find yourself, like Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty (or Annette Bening’s), standing in the shower or in front of a bathroom mirror in someone else’s house asking: Is this what I was preparing for? Is this what I have worked for?
In the words of the great Leiber/Stoller song: “Is that all there is?”
This is akin to staring into the Abyss until, as Nietzsche warns, the Abyss begins to stare back. Seeing that emptiness and meaninglessness—and it’s enough that it appears to be empty and meaningless—is terrifying. (I’m reminded of what the Tenth Doctor says, in “The Sound of Drums,” about looking into the Untempered Schism: Some go crazy and some run away. Such it is with the perception of meaninglessness in a human life. Of course, there are other options.)
There are different ways to react to this. One can, of course, decide that absolute or objective meaning isn’t needed anyway. (Go, Existentialism!) One can decide that there is actually objective meaning here. (Is this a delusion?) One can lose oneself in a larger purpose. (Dedication to nation or church or party, perhaps.) One can embrace what is here and now with a delighted or ironic resignation. (Both the absurdists and, I think, some types of conservatives take this option.) And, there are others.
But one reaction is to find all that has gone before meaningless, and because it is meaningless in the grand scheme of thing, to cast it away and try to start over, to buy that Mustang or Miata, get a personal trainer or sleep with one, divorce, break up, leave job or city. To go back to one of the last times when things made sense, when life seemed full of purpose and promise and pleasure. To recapture youth and see if you can’t get to meaning from there this time. To run away from the me I’ve become and try to find a different me. (And, I think it is always the self that’s being run away from; I cast aside others to cast aside the self my relationships make.)
That’s the path of the mid-life crisis. And, it looks like immaturity, like the unending American adolescence. Maybe it is, after all. But, in the middle of life, as I stare at my feet in the shower, the soap running down my body and into the drain, thinking of the years running out of my life, I can at least begin to understand how someone takes that path, how someone tries to regain youth.
I don’t think it’s the right path. I don’t think running away from meaninglessness gives you meaning. I don’t think running away from life or yourself fixes the problems with your own life. After all, wherever you run, there you are going to be. But, I understand.