Behind the scenes of a mid-life crisis
I think I had a mid-life crisis a few months ago.
It was a weird experience, because I didn’t see it coming. Ever since my conversion I’ve had this unshakable sense of peace at the foundation of my life, a sort of root-level happiness that I never knew was possible. Yeah, things are hard, sometimes really hard, and I whine now and then (okay, a lot), but all of that stuff has to do with day to day annoyances. When you look past all that, I’m actually deeply fulfilled with this crazy existence of mine — after all, life doesn’t have to be easy to be joyful.
So I was caught off guard when, one warm afternoon last fall, I found myself riddled with stress and panic at the thought of turning 36.
It was one of those moments when information that I already knew well suddenly struck me completely differently than it had the first thousand times I’d thought about it: a nurse at my obstetrician’s office asked how old I would be when the baby is born, and I answered casually, “Thirty-six.” She left the room while scribbling notes on my chart, and I was left stunned, sitting rigid in the chair as if I’d just received some grave diagnosis.
“Thirty-six? Thirty-SIX?!?! My thirties are mostly gone! Forty is just around the corner! I’M SO OLD!!!!”
Now, I realize the ridiculousness of a 36-year-old thinking that she is old, and I’m sure I will laugh heartily if I re-read this in 30 years. It’s not even that I think that 36 is old, objectively; I just didn’t realize that that’s my age. I guess I’ve been so busy for the past half decade that I never really noticed that I was out of my 20s.
But whatever. No big deal. I tried to brush it all off as soon as I left the doctor’s office, assuring myself that I must just be in one of those moods where everything seems overwhelming and horrible. (Just that morning I had called Joe to wonder loudly if life is even worth living anymore, which resulted in an awkward silence when it came out that the question arose because we ran out of butter.)
The hours turned into days, my mood improved, and yet I continued to be plagued by some unsettling feeling about my age. I’d be going through my routine, feeling fine, and then — boom — that I’M GETTING OLD! feeling would slam into me and leave me reeling.
I tried to get to the bottom of this weird new anxiety, but had little luck. I went through this mental process I often turn to in times of stress, where I think through possible explanations and try them out like trying keys in a lock. Yet this time, none of them fit: Anxious about mortality? Nah. We Catholics think about death all the time, and I’m fairly comfortable with the knowledge that my life on this earth won’t last forever. Worried about looking older? I’m not immune to bemoaning new gray hairs and wrinkles, but it doesn’t bother me that much. Missing the “freedom” of youth? Oh my gosh. I was never more of a slave than when I was supposedly living the high life in my 20s. Do not want to experience that again.
I walked around like this for days, maybe even weeks: stressed about my age, stressed about the fact that I was stressed, and stressed that I couldn’t analyze my way out of my stress about being stressed. (Yeah. It’s hard to be me.) Then, finally, it hit me, and I understood what was at the root of my anxiety.
The ah-hah moment came when I stumbled across an old DarwinCatholic post, in which Darwin makes a profound point about our little daily choices adding up to create a life — specifically, that if our choices are poorly thought out, it may not be a life we want to live. He analogized it to constructing a building:
The house or office you are sitting in was built according to a plan and a purpose, a purpose from which it is now only able to deviate to a limited extent. My house cannot suddenly become an office tower, though it has an office in it. My office building would make a very poor house. But they are built knowingly, according to a plan. And yet, our lives seem often constructed to a purpose without the architect knowing that he is in constructing something with walls and doors — an edifice which will suit some ends well, and other poorly. Individual choices pile up unto some particular type of life, and once that life is built people sometimes find it is not, in fact, the kind of structure they want to live in.
After reading that, I got it.
People probably experience mid-life crises for a variety of reasons, but, for me, what happened was that I looked up and realized that my building is well on its way to completion. Even though I am happy with the way it’s turning out, it was startling to realize how much of it is done. Last time I checked, it was still a bare foundation with endless possibilities; it now has a definite design, a clear trajectory. Many of the choices I have already made rule out other, future choices I might have once considered. As a 36-year-old mother expecting my sixth child, it’s extremely unlikely that I will ever be a top makeup artist or ascend the Seven Summits or become a professor of physics. It’s not that I care that much about doing any of those things, but when I was 20, they were all options.
Now, they are not.
It was when I internalized that fact that I realized that the pain of my mid-life crisis was, at its root, fueled by my attachment to options.
I’ve long given lip service to the idea that the secret to life is seeking God’s will on a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour basis. Ever since I read the (incredible and life-changing) book He Leadeth Me, I have been a big believer in this idea that the most important way to be fulfilled and have an impact on the world is simply to ask God what he wants you to do right here, right now; to rest in the knowledge that God always has something important that he needs you to do, no matter your age or your physical abilities or your circumstances, and that it’s probably more exciting than your own plans anyway.
But believing something and living it are always two different things, and it wasn’t until my little mid-life crisis that I realized just how much hope I placed in having options. Rather than resting in the life that God has given me, and trusting that he’ll give me whatever opportunities I require to do what I’m meant to do in this world, I still relied on having lots and lots of choices for the future in my back pocket (you know, as a backup, just in case God dropped the ball with his plan and I had to take over).
And when I realized that many of those choices were gone now, with more disappearing with each passing day, it was a startling moment of coming face to face with my own attachments.
As I would find out a few months later when my health took a dive, this happens in other areas of life as well: in addition to time, you often don’t realize just how much you rely on things like power, money, or (in my recent situation) health until you don’t have them anymore. I always thought that my hope for a truly fulfilled life rested in God alone. Now I see that the breakdown was more like: 30% hope in God, 30% hope in robust health that allows me to engage in activities of my choosing, 30% hope in having plenty of time to do all sorts of other stuff in the future, and 10% in having the resources to make it happen. As we age, those other commodities dwindle — a 110-year-old doesn’t have a whole lot of health or time or resources, for example — and only God is left.
At least for me, a mid-life crisis is nothing more or less than a realization that every day brings us a little closer to that point when all we have left is God, and that we may be closer to that point than we thought we were. It sounds kind of depressing, like something I’d shout into the phone at Joe at 3 PM when I’m exhausted and the baby won’t nap and someone just spilled yogurt on the wall (“ALL I HAVE LEFT IS GOD!!!”), but it’s really quite inspiring. To go through a mid-life crisis and to come out the other side is to go through a process of purification, in which you accept the things that are gone, and realize that they were were never the source of true happiness to begin with.