THE MID-LIFE CRISIS
The mid-life crisis is no myth, yet subtle attention to spontaneity and hope can calm the storm and plot a course.
BBC television has made an unexpected hit out of ‘Grumpy Old Men’ and its sister series ‘Grumpy Old Women’. The idea of a lot of irritable middle-aged men complaining about the world - standard practice in the pub - doesn’t sound promising material for TV, and yet it has proved a hit as professional moaners like Jeremy Clarkson and Rick Wakeman complain about the likes of call centres, urban cyclists, rail networks, chummy TV presenters, traffic wardens, noisy neighbours, airport check-ins, people who walk and eat at the same time, supermarket queues, vacuous celebrities and columnists who only write about themselves. I could go on - in fact it is alarming for me to know that I am in the grumpiest age group in recorded British history: men between the ages of 35 and 51.
Moaning about life today is so commonplace that we forget to measure our lives against others. And so there is no irony in complaining about supermarket queues, despite the shortages other nations habitually live with, and no shame in moaning about the annoyances of food shopping while children are starving in Africa.
The complaint culture in modern Britain is quite insidious and diminishes us as a nation. I think the acid test for any Christian when they feel like moaning is whether it would hold up convincingly in a prayer to God.
And yet habitual complaining is often a symptom of a deeper malaise -in this case, perhaps the mid-life crisis. Some people dispute the existence of the mid-life crisis, and think it has no more credibility than alien abductions or the Bermuda triangle. And yet there is so much literature on it, and the cliché has passed so comfortably into folk wisdom, that there must be some truth in it, even if some people are afflicted by it more than others. Research, anyway, has shown that men and women tend to be at their unhappiest either side of 40.
There is an old joke that middle age is when a broad mind and a narrow waist swap adjectives, but I suspect the mid-life crisis is connected rather to a perceived narrowing of the choices in front of people. They begin to recognise their limitations in new ways – that their career is set on a course whose ending they can predict, that their early ambitions in life may not be fulfilled, that the room for spontaneity has been lost, and that relationships which once brought them so much pleasure have been squeezed dry of life. Joy is replaced by duty. This also includes a dawning awareness of personal mortality - that there may be less time now ahead of them than behind.
One of the outcomes of living in a world that is not right with God is a strange and persistent sense of maladjustment. More people than perhaps we would like to think struggle with combinations of job dissatisfaction, loveless marriages and relentless weariness. Even people who find great fulfilment in their work and friendships often carry with them a nagging despondency about life. Judging by the population’s appetite for drink and drugs, its peculiar mixture of anger and hedonism, it seems as if we spend a lot of time trying to dull the pain that comes from purposelessness.
Let’s consider two key factors in the mid-life crisis: office work and intimate relationships. The number of people who suddenly discover a desire to raise free-range poultry in eco-friendly farmhouses in Devon in preference to catching the 7.37 to Paddington Station to work with David Brent every day is good evidence of the crisis in office work. If we continue to define career ambition solely as getting to the top, then most people are going to remain unfulfilled in life, and the sum of human happiness will continue to flat-line until we find a better way of defining success. Even those who reach the summit often find the view is less exhilarating than they expected. There is compelling evidence of how beyond a certain point, extra income does not deliver extra happiness, although people continue to behave as if it must, pushing themselves for bigger pay packets.
Some people may need to hear the uncomfortable message that what counts most in life are the relationships we make. Because we can’t measure them materially, like we can with a large income or a series of degrees, and, dare I suggest this, because the public world has been largely shaped by men who are less good relationally than women on the whole, so the importance of human relationships in our life’s accounting have been downplayed. And yet the first and greatest commandment says: ‘love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself’. When God judges our lives, he looks at the quality of our relationships first and foremost.
Some people, nevertheless, struggle hard with their jobs, and simply cannot find the joy they are looking for. One of the goals of church should be to help people in this struggle. Our faith isn’t all about Sunday worship – the church should be a resource to help people live for God the rest of the week. We spend less than 1% of our week in church, so how we help people to find God in the other 99% of their lives should preoccupy us more than it does.
The other key factor in the mid-life crisis is the change in outlook on intimacy. The number of middle-aged men who suddenly discover body posture, a new wardrobe from Next and a lust for Britney Spears is surely evidence of a crisis in sexuality. For women I guess the relevant clues may be liposuction, Top Shop and X-Factor’s Shayne Ward. We can laugh about it, but the truth is more uncomfortable. Some relationships, having begun in the glow of cellulite-free skin start to show signs of real stress, made all the more dangerous by the failure of some spouses to recognise it. Helen Rowland famously said: ‘before a marriage, a man declares that he would lay down his life to serve you. After marriage he won’t even lay down his newspaper to talk to you’. The number of nervous laughs this induces in company shows that her words hit a nerve. It is in this carelessness over emotional detail that some marriages begin to flounder, and in the desire to reclaim those passionate early days elsewhere that some people make a ruin of the one relationship they vowed they wouldn’t. In every modern wedding service, the congregation makes a promise to support and uphold the couple in their marriage. It is a timely reminder that no marriage stands and falls on its own, and needs a surrounding web of support. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we have surely made this promise to each other. And so another goal of the church should be to offer ways of enriching the marriages within it, because all successful marriages must evolve, if they are not eventually to become a shell of themselves.
I will not dwell here on other, equally demanding pressures on the mid-lifer, like singleness and childlessness, adolescent sexuality and parental bereavement, empty nest syndrome and the pension crisis. But I would like to put three options before you. The Japanese word for crisis is the same they use for opportunity, and many turning points in life offer us openings that moments of stability do not. The first option is personal prayer. I am convinced that prayerless lives breed disenchantment. God is walking with us, and he promises to speak to us and guide us every day. A failure then on our part to talk to him means we are more likely to miss the many cues he gives us. The life of faith is a wonderful, precious gift, infusing every day with possibilities and a sense that the living God cares about our lives, and how we influence others. Sometimes we have only ourselves to blame for the boredom we claim to suffer from because we are only half-alive spiritually. People make lots of excuses for not praying – I should know, I’ve made most of them myself – but we should be a can-do people when it comes to prayer.
The second option is to find a new rhythm and spontaneity in our lives. By rhythm I mean finding a virtuous circle of work and rest; by spontaneity I mean changing old routines. Most people have more control over the latter than the former. Corporate culture is often hostile to a fruitful balance between work and rest, and claims that nothing can be done about it are often either deceitful or defeatist. Yet even if you lack control over your work, you can act spontaneously in your free time as a way of wresting back some control over your destiny and injecting more excitement into your lives. People pray for the Holy Spirit to guide them in their work, but rarely pray for the Holy Spirit to guide them in their leisure. Why shouldn’t we ask God to be with us powerfully in our free time? We might be surprised at what we receive.
The third option is to make a conscious choice to think more as a Christian should about the future. We are all heading towards an appointment with God which should change the way we feel about our lives. And in human terms this moment is only a matter of years away for all of us. A life lived with God in eternity is the goal Christians are set, and yet (if I may adopt an analogy from football) many spend the mid-years of their life passing the ball square on the centre-line, or booting the ball back for the goalkeeper to kick it aimlessly up the pitch. We lose sight of the goal, and of the exciting and creative journey involved in getting there. In this sense, far from the mid-life crisis being a panic over the big issues of life, it amounts to a such a narrowing of our vision that we lose sight of the only big picture which really counts, and suffer needless crises of purpose.
As St. Paul said: I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m not having a mid-life crisis. But then that’s what they all say!
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