The myth of the midlife crisis
Within each of us are two opposing forces : the will to live and the will to die. Each one waxes and wanes according to life’s circumstances.
Our obsession with death is illustrated for example in Hallowe’en, the festival of Santa Muerte in Mexico and the popularity of horror films; according to Freud we live in a permanent state of desire and we therefore aspire to the end of desire because desire leads to disappointment. In Buddhism nirvana is the freedom from desire, where rebirth is no longer necessary, a state described by the Buddha as “deathlessness”. The monotheistic religions preach the overcoming of death, the ultimate expression of which is in the resurrection, but also advocate the earthly suppression of excessive desires with the promise of fulfilment in paradise. For Schopenhauer life oscillated between struggle and boredom; for him to live was to suffer and the aim and purpose of life was death. He was a grim-looking kind of guy who would probably be in therapy today.
With every day that passes the prospect of Eternal Oblivion draws nearer, a prospect that appals us; many believers as well as those who proclaim no faith are filled with fear when given a limited time to live. Put a gun against a man’s head and his fear of death will become apparent, whatever his previous bluster. And yet we are taught it is arrogant to desire ‘more than our fair share’ of life. Schopenhauer for instance felt it immoral to desire to impose oneself on the world any more than necessary.And so we sense Freud’s Death Drive within us constantly, while simultaneously longing to outwit it.
In actual fact for most people the moment of death will be gentle and the difference between life and death a matter of seconds. In the days that follow a death people sometimes report bizarre events suggesting the person’s consciousness has survived, such as the same sign being sent to family members on separate occasions, which if not necessarily proof of an afterlife is at least proof of a strong connection of minds within a group.
The fear of death while we are still alive is much worse than the moment itself, and begins to loom larger in our fifties. For the midlife crisis consists in this: I realise I have not achieved what I dreamt of achieving, and what I have achieved has given me no satisfaction. I spend my life never having time for what is important because my job takes up so much energy and focus that I have nothing left over for what matters. Signs of a midlife crisis include reading obituaries, longingly looking at old photos of oneself and going to Glastonbury. This period also often coincides with the death of parents. We feel a sense of panic and the urge to race around the world “packing things in”, but in doing so we are setting a limit on the time we have left. If when in this mindset we had to represent our lives on a graph, the midlife crisis would represent the peak, followed by a rapid decline towards zero.
In fact the midlife crisis is a myth. It is one of several moments throughout life, which can come at any time, when we pause to take stock before setting off again. Designating any moment in our life as the middle is equivalent to telling our biological clock when to stop.
There is no sin in the desire to live fully, the desire to live long and healthily. Schopenhauer was wrong when he suggested life equals suffering, since as we are here we might as well enjoy it! Let us desire to live well then, and if our consciousness survives the grim reaper, we will not have lost out, and if it does not….we will not have lost out either.