I wrote earlier about the First, Second, and Third Spiritual Journeys of life. The Second Journey—having to do with some sort of reorientation during middle adulthood—encompasses the “mid-life crisis” of common parlance. This post will describe the concept of the mid-life crisis and compare it with my progression through midlife.
I should start by admitting that I probably didn’t ever have a full-blown mid-life crisis—and it is by no means assured that any but an unlucky few have their journey buffeted by any sort of midlife gale. Some researchers think nothing different happens in midlife than in any other phase of adulthood. Still, it does seem that many people have some sort of mid-life transition, crisis or not. Studies find that happiness dips in middle adulthood, suggesting that something is going on then. Writers on matters psychological, such as this post, describe midlife turmoil as common. So, perhaps the best advice is to not be surprised if nothing much happens to you at midlife, but also not be surprised if something does.
Yale psychologist Daniel J. Levinson was one of the main proponents of the idea that crisis is a hallmark of the transition from young adulthood to middle adulthood. In his 1978 book The Seasons of a Man’s Life (he didn’t write about women’s psychological development until later), Levinson indicates that the settled life that most men attain by the 30s is disrupted by a period of reappraisal. The man asks himself questions such as: “What have I done with my life?” “What is it I truly want for myself and others?” “What have I done with my early Dream and what do I want with it now?” Levinson claims that the answers to such questions are disconcerting:
“As he attempts to reappraise his life, a man discovers how much it has been based on illusions, and he is faced with the task of de-illusionment. By this expression I mean a reduction of illusions, a recognition that long-held assumptions and beliefs about self and world are not true.”
Mid-life is not the first time that we find that what once comforted us is illusory: Consider the 6-year-old who learns the truth about Santa Claus, or the 10-year-old who figures out that dad or mom isn’t the smartest/strongest/coolest parent around, or the 16-year-old who discovers that his or her nation, city, school, or social niche isn’t better than all others. Perhaps de-illusionment is a necessary part of development throughout life. The illusions lost in mid-life bring particular pain, though.
What transition did I go through in mid-life? As the title of this post suggests, I went through more than one. Here is a summary:
- When I was 32, I decided that I wasn’t satisfied teaching about a field in which I hadn’t practiced, and sought part-time (later full-time) clinical work in state prisons.
- After five years and three jobs in the prisons of two different states, I became dissatisfied with what I could accomplish working in correctional settings and took a job in a private hospital, which subsequently led to outpatient psychological practice.
- In my early 40s, I felt the need for an expressive outlet, and began spending a good deal of time writing poetry, short stories, and essays.
- After twenty years of marriage, it became evident that both my wife and I were deeply unhappy with our relationship. Efforts to mend our rift weren’t successful, and we divorced when I was 46.
- Shortly after I turned 50, I decided I needed to teach others something of what I had learned during my career, and took a full-time job teaching undergraduates. I thus came full circle back to the classroom, the site of my first professional job.
Most of these transitions occurred over a period of time ranging from a few months to a few years. In every case I was impelled by some degree of discontent, dissatisfaction, or de-illusionment. I plan to write about a few of these changes in more detail, exploring the factors that motivated me. In the meantime, here are the main points of this post: midlife transitions can occur in a variety of ways, including, as in my case, numerous moderately large life changes over the course of decades. Don’t expect a crisis, and don’t assume that, if a crisis occurs, it will look at all like someone else’s crisis.