This past week I have read two pieces that have given me pause and allowed me to reflect on something that I have had been thinking about for some time; I am experiencing my midlife crisis. I have been working, parenting, playing, thinking, and experiencing a life and largely ignored the fact that I am likely half-way home. I am 45 years old. I was born in 1973. If we are to believe the experts I am scheduled to die sometime between 2044 and 2073. I suspect the real date is somewhere in the middle. While I have always wanted to live to 100 (and that is possible) I am thinking 90ish is more likely. This is sobering to consider. So I felt like I was folding into a midlife crisis. But not the car buying, relationship ending, playboy midlife crisis. But more an existential midlife crisis.
I often find my mind drifting thinking about my life and my place in it. How over millions of years the universe conspired to have two people create the zygote that would eventually become your’s truly. That I grew, matured, learned, and worked for so many years to reach a certain point in my life where I can say I have reached “the top”. I have done everything I was told to do. Stay in school, don’t do drugs, be nice to others, work hard, save for retirement, be a good father and husband, you know, be a good person. I have had career success and personal success. I have been promoted, run half-marathons, made a sweet smoked brisket, seen the Rolling Stones in concert, I’ve kind of done it all. So, why don’t I feel accomplished, satisfied, or generally good about myself? Why have I been suffering from a form of mild anxiety and dread that I am both invisible and unaccomplished? I have like 600 Facebook friends, why am I not happier?
Then I read a post by Brene Brown titled “The Midlife Unraveling” and for me it all made sense. I realized that I was enduring a midlife unraveling and my awareness of this was forcing me to confront that I am not infinite, there are only so many days, and I will never get to everything. I also came to the realization that while I am not invisible, I am likely not nearly as important as I fancied myself to be just a few years ago. That my life will likely be lived in relative obscurity and I will not not be a sports or rock star like I dreamed about. A matter of fact, I will not even be a Dean of Students or a VP for Student Affairs as I felt I would one day be. I will likely never be thin, or strong, or feel as good as I did 20 years ago. What if, as Jack Nicholson says in the movie by the same title, this is “as good as it gets?” What does that mean for me and my life?
And that is when the full blown crisis or unraveling occurred. That despite my best intentions I will never be the man that I felt I was going to be. That there is no gold ring or no vacation home in Napa Valley. What now? Then I went back to the movie As Good As It Gets and I reflected on the penultimate scene in the movie and watched it again:
And it got me to thinking, what if what I was here to be is just be a better man. What if the secret is not achieving but progress. More important, what if being a better man meant being a better man to me and the few people around me who I know love and who depend on me. Because, after all, I do have great friends, not many, but enough of them. And I have this amazing family. A wife I have loved since I was 19, a daughter who still has her story to write. And while I am not George Kuh, I have had a pretty nice career. I even managed to win a couple of cheerleading and dance national championships, hauled a huge rock to campus to start a new campus tradition, and now I’m trying to change higher education for millions of first generation students who grew up like me! I am not great, but I am not that bad either.
So recently I have been trying to be a better man. To live a more full life where I don’t worry about my weight but I try to eat better, where I know I won’t be rich but I manage my money better, where I work hard but I don’t take on the weight of the world. Where I speak up for myself, tell the truth, and live kinder. Where I challenge myself but I also feel okay taking a nap on a random Saturday. Look, if I am lucky I have about as many days ahead as I have behind. Around 17,000 of them. That sounds like a lot but the first 17,000 burned up pretty quick. Time to recognize this simple fact.
The other piece I read this week that put this idea of midlife unraveling in my mind was a short story by author David Eagleman entitled Metamorphosis . The story focuses on a waiting room where we all go when we die. We stay there until the last person left living who mentions our name dies as well and then we move on. At that point we are evaporated for eternity, to be a forgotten part of an endless history. At first I read this with horror that one day everyone who I ever loved or will love, who will ever know me will, like me, be gone into the darkness as well. That we will all be just forgotten souls who once haunted this earth, only to be a part of nothingness. But I find this liberating. if this is truly our eventual end then why take it so seriously and why be so self-conscious and angst filled? Why spend time on trivial things and working for others pleasure? Why not focus on yourself, not in a selfish way, but your personal needs for life and for the joy and opportunity for those around you. After all, none of us will need any of this where we are going.
So, this unraveling hopefully has a happy ending. A better sense of self and a knowledge that better is better but it does not have to be best.