Your Midlife Crisis, Transition, or Transformation?
I've been away . . . yes I have. But all that's behind me now, and this month is shaping up to be a transitional one. I'm needing to take my business from a disappointing conclusion with the end of 2008 into something even more dynamic and transformational as we move more deeply into 2009. Things are changing, aren't they? Old features are passing away and new ones are coming into play. Does it make you feel uncomfortable, not knowing what tomorrow will bring? What'll be on the line next? Will it be your job? Will it be your family and home life? Will it be your own health and happiness? Will it be new opportunities? Will it be a new sense of hope?
If you've been truly caught off-guard by the recent global economic downturn, part of your consternation may derive from your not taking seriously enough this simple dictum: 'The only constant is change.' When people fail to take that seemingly-simple idea sufficiently seriously, they're most likely heading for serious trouble. If the only constant in the universe is change (and it is), what allowance must you make for stability, security and certitude? I'm deadly serious when I say, "None at all." These are all ephemera and illusions. They seem to appear for a time, but then they vanish as quickly as they came, and without warning. And yet, nearly everyone (except, perhaps, the most spiritually advanced among us) continue to pursue these mirages from time to time. The more enlightened way to treat life is the famous "one day [hour / minute / second] at a time," taking seriously that "this, too, shall pass." That you live life this way is critically important, yet how you live life this way is equally so. Let's explore why this is so.
Living life on life's terms, one day at a time does not at all require you to surrender all responsibility for managing the life that you've been handed. Whether you're an adult, experiencing the midlife transition, or already in maturity, you are neither the master of your future nor a pawn of fate: you are the co-creator of your destiny. At the same time, you're given all the raw materials necessary to make something truly meaningful of yourself — or not. You're given a lot of choices: from choosing how you're going to define 'success' for yourself to deciding whether or how you're going to pursue those goals. You can choose to float like a leaf in a river, at most paddling with the current, or you can swim in such a way that you use the current to take you where you want to go. Sadly, there's yet another choice: swimming upstream. Each has its own attractions, and each has its own pitfalls. Yet, clearly, not all of them will yield the same quality of results.
Take the last example, for instance: swimming upstream. I think that most of us men spend the majority of our adult lives swimming upstream. After all, we've been fed the masculine myth of the warrior, fighting bravely and without regard for his personal safety or comfort against insurmountable odds to achieve a glorious victory. Yeah, right: that's what we generally see when we look around at middle-aged men, don't we — a raft of glorious victories? What we generally see when we look around at guys toward the end of their adulthood phase are men who have fraught bravely only to find themselves in the same place they started, or men who strove very hard to make something of themselves and who achieved a semblance of victory over the odds, only to see their winnings wiped out when they ran out of resources. Or, we see guys for whom the challenge was just too overwhelming for them to be able even to keep up. The model for the successful adult male that most of us have been led to accept doesn't generally produce what it promises.
A midlife crisis generally starts with the realization that swimming upstream against the current generally yields very disappointing results. Destiny, like aging, has a certain inevitability about it. Sooner or later, every man has to come to terms with his destiny. That's where the critical choice comes into play: what are you going to do? How are you going to take your disappointments and the life that you've been saddled with (that's not entirely of your choosing), and do something with it? If you've chosen the route of the midlife crisis, you'll decide to keep struggling. Maybe you'll kick aside your job, your career, your family, your health . . . everything . . . and start over. Or, maybe you'll just keep on keeping on until you burn out.
Maybe, on the other hand, you'll realize how futile so much of your efforts were, and you'll quit fighting entirely. You'll just 'let go and let God,' hoping somehow that a Deus ex machina — something one of my professors used to call 'the stop-gap God — will just pop out and take care of everything. You may accept the midlife transition in such a way as simply to give up on yourself and your life. Perhaps you'll just drift into 'retirement' (you can read into that 'surrender') and be the kind of man that Henry David Thoreau wrote about when he said, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." It reminds me of the story of the guy who rolled a huge boulder to the edge of a cliff, and, when it kept on rolling toward the precipice, wondered why his cries to God to stop it from going over went unanswered. Acceptance of your midlife transition is only a necessary but small part of the equation.
Every adolescent, when he or she passes out of childhood and into the driver's seat of life that we call adulthood, must sense the possibility of personal greatness. The lack of that sense of omnipotence indicates a childhood gone terribly wrong. A human being without a sense of personal empowerment and possibility lives in a condition of poverty before which any other example of poverty on earth pales. For those, at least, who were not entirely robbed of their humanity before the onset of adolescence, there's a willingness to fight. When those men are presented with the transformative power of midlife, they take advantage of it. They're willing to let the many futilities of adulthood pass ("All things flow [Πάντα ῥεῖ ]," wrote the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus), but they refuse to give up their dreams. They allow the midlife transition to transform them, aligning their courage and efforts with their destiny, re-defining success in such a way as to present themselves with fully achievable goals.
At once, those who can both sense and embrace the flow of their personal destinies are empowered to transform their efforts from futility into greatness. For, dear readers, the greatest challenge that you or any one of us has to overcome is our own reluctance to change, for it is only out of apparent defeat that great men (and women) can create truly transformative victories. As you experience your own challenges from the midlife transition, what arrogance must you surrender in order to align your power with your destiny? Where will you find your most transformative defeat?