Middle age or midlife can be a confusing and disruptive time for some people, leaving them feeling adrift, sad, angry or lonely. Caught somewhere between receding youth and approaching death, it can provoke us to reflect on and reconsider our choices in life.
The Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote vividly about his own experience of midlife:
My life came to a standstill... it was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death — complete annihilation... and all of this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune. I was not yet fifty; I had a good wife, who loved me and whom I loved, good children and a large estate... (‘A Confession’, 1884)
The history of midlife
The notion of a middle in life’s journey has a long history, extending back even to ancient Greece, when average life expectancy was only 30-35 years.
Images for midlife can be found in early literature, including questing Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, Sophocles’ anguished Oedipus, Dante lost in the dark woods of his Inferno, and the “fair round belly” of the fifth of man’s seven ages in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Nevertheless, the popular distinction as a life stage (and the word ‘midlife’ itself) did not emerge until the late 19th century, perhaps as a consequence of industrialisation and changes in life expectancy. And some question whether or not there is a distinct midlife phase at all.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that some people do find their middle age is a difficult period. And there are a number of different explanations for this.
For example, the psychiatrist Carl Jung suggested the root is not fear of death, but a natural emergence of psychic opposites unused earlier in life, for example our masculine and feminine tendencies.
Psychologist Erik Erikson saw it as one of eight life stages in which we have to resolve a crisis of opposing attitudes, between either stagnating or guiding the next generation.
And psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques coined the term ‘midlife crisis’ to describe creative changes that occur in the face of increasing awareness of the reality of one’s own death.
Men’s experience of midlife
Everyone can suffer during their midlife for a variety of reasons, but it is not inevitable – not everyone goes through some form of crisis or turmoil. However, research on some men’s experience of midlife shows there were a number of common themes.
Among these were forms disruption, sadness and questioning; fears about getting old and death; greater efforts at taking care of oneself; more interest in helping or thinking of others; and concerns with physical appearance, energy or health.
What was clear, though, is that everyone’s experience of midlife is unique, and that it is the particularities of their midlife that demand exploration and – possibly – new thinking and different choices. It was also clear that talking about their experience was a helpful way to navigate and understand whatever emotions and circumstances they faced.
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