The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 5:44:26

What Midlife Crisis is Really About

Marie Meaney, Sep 03, 2014

The Marshallin in Richard Strauss’ wonderful opera “Der Rosenkavalier” sings a beautiful aria about time and what it is like to get older. “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbares Ding”, “Time is a strange thing” she sings in elegiac tones, bemoaning the fact that she is no longer young, and that the young man with whom she is having an affair will not be hers forever. She sends him away before he has gotten tired of her, only to have to tell him farewell for good after having smoothed out all difficulties for him so that he can marry the young Sophie with whom he has fallen in love. She has to accept the fact that she was forced into a loveless marriage at a young age, and that she is now losing what made life bearable to her.

Today we would say that she is going through mid-life crisis, which set me thinking what that crisis is really about. Stereotypically one associates with it the desire to be young again and to fool oneself into being so by getting a fast car, starting an affair, changing jobs etc. One has to face the fact one does not have as many options anymore, like deciding which profession to choose, whom to marry, or where to live. Also, that some things have not worked out (not having a spouse, children, a fulfilling job) or that tragedy has struck and one never will be able to put the pieces of one’s life together again. And finally, that time is inexorably ticking, making one get closer to death every day. One’s mortality seemed remote and abstract, except if one (or somebody close) has been in danger of death early in life. Now death and old age are approaching fast and gaining momentum, as wrinkles crop up, hair turns grey and some friends are dying from heart attacks and cancer of late.

However, this does not yet capture what stands at the core of the midlife crisis. Rather, it has to do with the realization that the cross is truly unavoidable. When younger, one tends to think that happiness is just round the corner. If suffering from poor health, one believes that one will be healed one day. If depressed, that one will get out of it for good. If one has not been loved well, that one will find a soul mate, a spouse, or a friend who will give one this unconditional love one has been craving. Of course, many people do find solutions to their problems of health, find a good spouse and friends, free themselves from depression, have a fulfilling job etc. Nevertheless, there are certain things one will not obtain, the lack of which will be felt every second of one’s life. Depending on their personality and how much or how little they have been given, some will experience their crosses as crushing earlier than others. The point is that sooner or later the realization will dawn upon us that certain things will not be ours, that we will not find utter fulfillment in this world. There are moments in life, when this will hit us harder than at other times; midlife crisis (which can come at different ages, depending on the individual) is one of those periods. Dante, as we know, was lost in a dark wood in the middle of his life, as the Divine Comedy famously starts. This was his turning point, when he had to face his inner demons, and embrace the cross in order to be purified and eventually be united with God.

Of course, as a Christian one knows that eternal bliss will not be ours on this earth, and that there is a good reason for this, namely the Fall. However, there is a difference between knowing this in an abstract manner and realizing it for oneself. The temptation is great to coat over the gaping emptiness in oneself, flee the cross in one’s marriage or other areas in one’s life by seeking substitutes. Hence, the pull is strong to seek happiness at whatever cost. This, to my mind, explains the fact that affairs, divorces and remarriage, are typical, when hitting the 40ies. They are a kind of escapism, of fooling oneself that fulfillment is possible, if only one can shed what is difficult in one’s life, and that one will find unconditional love elsewhere without having to suffer.

It is an illusion, of course, and only postpones ineffectually the recognition that the cross is unavoidable, though one might try to escape it until the end. We can spend our life deceiving ourselves, always setting up new objectives in the hope that the next thing will satisfy us. As Pascal writes in his Pensées, most people are running towards the abyss while holding their goals like shields in front of themselves, failing to respond to the real demands of the hour. To live in the present and not in a lie, takes heroism for it means accepting our crosses. Otherwise, we will seek diversions, which act like a drug, such as work, success, sex, money, fame, adultery etc. In a certain sense, we are therefore all addicts, dependent on our idols, until we have accepted our crosses.

Saint Faustina writes about a vision she had, where most people were dragging their crosses behind them, trying ineffectually to drop them; few people were stoically holding them up, but only very few were embracing theirs, allowing themselves to be crucified. Accepting the cross requires going against our human nature, which, as Simone Weil writes, makes us shun affliction “as irresistibly as an animal fleeing death”. It means dying to oneself, which - like all death - is painful and strips one eventually of everything. The question is whether one agrees to it or not, for happen it will.

Lest this sound morbid, let me add a few thoughts on joy, which can paradoxically be present even while nailed to the cross (I already reflected on this in another post  Embracing the cross is only possible in the context of love; otherwise, it seems useless, unintelligible (why is this happening to me?), and becomes quickly unbearable. Suffering for someone else already makes a lot more sense to us. Some pain binds me closer to my spouse, children, or friends; even though I might wish this could have come about differently, I can still cherish the consequences of that sorrow and sense its fruitfulness. A new element enters the equation through Christ, however. Because of His Cross, my suffering can become the medium par excellence of union with Him. Of course, there are other means of union: through the sacraments, by experiencing joy and beauty, through the love of another etc. But there is something about affliction which works as a catalyst to love and which cannot be replaced by anything else. It strips one of everything and creates a void where grace can pour in. No one but Christ can enter into the depths of this darkness, for it takes infinite love to be able to do so. So either we will be in it alone, trying desperately to flee from it though distractions, yet with little success the darker it is; or be in it with Christ and come out on the other side. Only then, when we have let Christ into this void, will we come to experience the cross as light and find joy in it. Only then will we realize that it is the tree of life. And only then will we understand why the angels envy us our capacity to share in Christ’s Cross.