midlife (not)crisis

the serpentine path | Brian Gaynor
          the serpentine path | Brian Gaynor

I won’t say there haven’t been elements of crisis here and there. Panic about what’s happening (or more distinctly about the absence of what I think should be happening or was happening until I dropped it somewhere). But what really categorizes this period for me, at least this section of it (*fumbles for the exact dates*), is stillness. The absence of angst. That sounds nice until you realize that it translates into the absence of the motivation and ambition that you’ve had for so long in your life that you assumed it was a core personality trait, not just a function of age or circumstance. Incongruously, I’ve been plagued by a persistent restlessness which was driven only by my intention to escape this undertow of apathy, clutching at anything I think might inspire me, or might be The Answer, even searching Craigslist for jobs outside of my field that I couldn’t possibly commit to even if I was qualified. Restlessness is a familiar emotion to me, at least, which  is why it caught my attention at first, I’m sure.

Most of the time I’ve not only felt confused, but confused about what I’m confused about, and why. Since when? I can’t say. Sometimes I think it’s been years, since I left my day job. But I remember hopeful ambition even since then. I remember writing my book, so sure of the path I was on and just amazed that I was allowed to be on it. I remember that I was going to be Great and climbing the steps to the top. Did I reach the top and now I’m disillusioned? Is that what happened? Did I lose my way altogether? Where did I take that sideways step? Or am I not as astray as I seem to be? Life interrupted or life itself?

I’ve been collecting what I’ve called symptoms for a while now. In February through April of 2013 I experienced a brief but sharp sadness centered around the loss of a sense of meaning. Whatever it was (I didn’t exactly know) that had been not the anchor, but the furnace of my life, seemed to have gone out. Forcing thought waves into words was a struggle. For longer than that, my career has seemed to be in free fall, from the inside out. I haven’t been in less demand, but I’ve been demanding less.

One day, in doing some research on the midlife transition on the web, I came across this tidy little list:

“Midlife transition can include:

  • Discontentment or boredom with life or with the lifestyle (including people and things) that have provided fulfillment for a long time
  • Feeling restless and wanting to do something completely different
  • Questioning decisions made years earlier and the meaning of life
  • Confusion about who you are or where your life is going
  • Daydreaming
  • Irritability, unexpected anger
  • Persistent sadness
  • Acting on alcohol, drug, food, or other compulsions
  • Greatly decreased or increased sexual desire
  • Sexual affairs, especially with someone much younger
  • Greatly decreased or increased ambition.”
two faces is one
            two faces is one

Yeah, some of these could be signs that it’s just another Friday night, but a ranking of 8 out of 11 sure gave me pause. It seems like a high enough percentage that would land you in the high category of a Cosmo quiz, anyhow. Reframing the story I was telling myself about the mess I was in and fitting it to the midlife transition model was an interesting shift. It made me feel a lot less frustrated with the symptoms. I’d already been studying the works of Carl Jung and I like his take on midlife. I am at the age he was when he lost his shit and started the black books that were to become his Red Book. He saw the first half of life serving the purpose of stabilizing the ego, learning and following social rules, and then the ego being displaced at mid-life to allow for the greater element, the Self, to emerge. Jung used the metaphor of a sun rising and setting:

“In order to characterize [this change within the psyche], I must take for comparison the daily course of the sun. In the morning, it rises from the nocturnal sea of unconsciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expands that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament. In this extension of its field of action caused by its own rising, the sun will discover its significant; it will see the attainment of the greatest possible height … as its goal. At the stroke of noon, the descent begins. The descent means the reversal of all the ideals and values that were cherished in the morning. The sun falls into contradiction with itself. It is as though it should draw in its rays instead of emitting them.” (italics mine)

This doesn’t seem to be depression. In a way I’ve never felt so authentic. But the real, the Self, is so much less sexy and flashy than the ego condom that held it. It doesn’t have the sharpness, the bright colors, the edge. But like the Velveteen rabbit, I feel more real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

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